General Motors Co. is starting to show off what it can achieve by investing $1.2 billion at its Fort Wayne assembly plant to prepare for production of the next-generation Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck.
The redesigned full-size pickup made its first major event appearance in mid-January at the 2018 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The event was attended by local plant employees on a team that is training to make the 2019 Silverado, even as most of its workforce assembles the 2018 version.
“I was sitting with some of the Flint people who were building the engines for it,” said spokeswoman Stephanie Jentgen. “It was great for the employees to see the full reveal before the public. And they were quiet about it.”
The new 2019 Silverado will be assembled at GM’s plant near the intersection of U.S. 24 and Interstate 69 in Roanoke, and at the company’s plants in Flint, Mich. and Silao, Mexico. About 350 employees from the three facilities made the trip to the employee event.
The launch is a noteworthy moment in the history of northeast Indiana’s economy. Almost 27 percent of the Fort Wayne metro area’s gross domestic product in the private sector comes from manufacturing - more than double the national average.
And with about 4,000 employees, the plant is northeast Indiana’s largest manufacturing employer, directly pumping a $348.1 million payroll into the region’s economy each year. About 3,800 of its workers are hourly employees represented by United Auto Workers Local 2209.
“The next generation truck is a fabulous opportunity for northeast Indiana, as far as the workforce and all the companies that provide parts for us, to have a strong, continued GM presence here for many years,” Jentgen said.
The plant runs three shifts making full-size, light-duty and heavy-duty regular and double cab Silverados and GMC Sierras, which she said has been a very complex build for such a fast line rate.
Annual production figures were not shared for competitive reasons. “We are working lots of overtime,” Jentgen said. “I can’t get into details, but every truck we can build right now, they want.”
Flint also makes the heavy-duty version of the pickup, and Fort Wayne will not be making that version of the 2019 Silverado.
The Fort Wayne Assembly Plant will be focusing on the light-duty version, in its double-cab and crew cab varieties.
The regular cab variety the plant has been assembling just has two doors; the double cab has four doors, but a slightly smaller back seat than the crew cab, which has four doors and a full back seat.
The crew cab is the most popular variety of the Silverado and that popularity has been growing.
Mark Reuss, GM’s executive vice president for global product development, has been quoted in auto industry publications as saying the company’s production of that variety has been constrained.
The Silverado’s redesign presented “a wonderful opportunity for GM to look at demand for the product and look at where the trucks are being built,” Jentgen said.
Reasoning that the changes would improve product quality as well as worker safety, “what we’ve been able to do now is equalize the build,” she said.
The local plant has won numerous quality awards, but with the version and variety changes in what it makes, “we’ll be able to focus more on quality because it will be a simpler build,” she said. “The other truck plants are increasing theirs a little bit; this is good for everybody.”
The changes were made possible by an expansion, which began in June 2015 and has grown the plant to 4.9 million square feet from 3.3 million square feet.
“When we expanded our paint and body shop here, it allowed us to build the crew cab,” she said. “Prior to this construction, Fort Wayne was not able to build the crew cab because it was too long for our paint shop.”
In addition to upgrading its general assembly operations and building a new pre-treat, electro coat paint operation and sealing facility, the project has involved expansion and new construction for the plant’s material sequencing centers.
Some of the equipment that has been replaced was about 30 years old and some of the body shop processes that have been modernized were in use when the facility opened, on Dec. 8, 1986. GM uses about 5,000 parts to assemble the pickup trucks it makes there.
“We are more than half way through the launch build process. That’s an expensive process of validation that gets increasingly more difficult as we get closer to the start of production,” Jentgen said.
“We have an incredible launch process. We do many iterations of the truck to make sure the design works as well in actuality as on paper.”
The plant is getting ready to have the new trucks available by late summer, and to do that she said it is making sure that on its production lines “everybody is trained and all the tooling has been dialed into perfection and we can just start building at close to full rate.”
The facility now has two body shops, and for about the first 18 months of 2019 Silverado production, it will be using both of them.
In addition to the pickups it finishes, the Fort Wayne Assembly Plant builds Silverado bodies that are shipped to a GM facility in Oshawa, Canada, which handles some component parts installation for them as well as final assembly.
That arrangement will continue until the current version of the pickup has been phased out entirely by the next generation Silverado, Jentgen said.