2022-07-27 | New Roads Magazine

Inside Factory ZERO

In the shadow of the Motor City, GM is rebuilding a 4.5-million-square-foot factory and distilling more than a century of manufacturing knowledge.

Roll down East Grand Boulevard in front of GM’s squat, still-under-construction Detroit-Hamtramck Factory ZERO assembly plant, and you’d swear you’re looking through a wormhole to the 1980s. On a recent trip, with a looming slate-gray sky overhead and a makeshift, temporary entryway greeting our tour, the very notion that this facility promised the future of Chevrolet defied logic. 

But don’t judge a book by its cover. Especially not when the book you’re eyeballing happens to be only slightly smaller than the Pentagon. 

From the outside, it’s hard to imagine what’s packed into the plant’s 4.5 million square feet, let alone that Detroit-Hamtramck (or D-Ham, as employees call it) was partially modernized in preparation for building the new Silverado EV (available fall 2023) — even as several garrisons of construction workers were pulling out all the stops to convert the rest of the plant into a state-of-the-art facility. 

Inside, our eyes bugged out at three-story robots (nicknamed Godzillas) that assist employees by performing thousands of welds an hour and at automated guided vehicles roaming the factory floor, carrying the chassis of trucks from workstation to workstation. 

Those guided vehicles are a smart piece of a broader strategy, one that includes everything from plant layout to tooling, that allows for maximum flexibility today and tomorrow. So, if the facility decides another build process is easier or better, or that a new tool can make a job faster, there’s no fixed path — no actual assembly “line.” Certainly nothing like how the plant’s executive director, Jim Quick, worked when he began his career at GM on an old-school line. The factory of the future is made future-proof through solutions just like this.

FACTORY ZERO’S DESIGN AND TECH WILL ENABLE WORKERS TO BUILD ALL TYPES OF VEHICLES BY CREATING THE ABILITY TO CHANGE THE PROCESS ON THE FLY.

FACTORY ZERO’S DESIGN AND TECH WILL ENABLE WORKERS TO BUILD ALL TYPES OF VEHICLES BY CREATING THE ABILITY TO CHANGE THE PROCESS ON THE FLY.

There were no job pacing screens when they built the Chevy Volt here, but those and other types of state-of-the-art innovations will soon help Silverado EVs roll out of Factory ZERO.

There were no job pacing screens when they built the Chevy Volt here, but those and other types of state-of-the-art innovations will soon help Silverado EVs roll out of Factory ZERO.

Vehicles, Not Monuments
Soon, all that talent and technology will be aimed at Silverado EV, Chevy’s first-ever all-electric truck. It will come in many different formats, but the first-year RST model will offer over 660 horsepower, over 780 pound-feet of torque, and 10,000 pounds of towing capacity.

Factory ZERO’s careful design and technology will enable workers to build many types of vehicles by creating the ability to change the process on the fly. Think of your home: What if your refrigerator, stove, and kitchen cabinets were on wheels? You could move them out and replace them with a sofa, TV, and coffee table, and suddenly your kitchen is your living room. That’s what this factory can do.

Anthony Stevens is the senior manager of Engineering and Facilities at Factory ZERO. He obsesses about that modularity, and Stevens’ job was to think about removing “fixed infrastructure that become monuments.” A monument is a roadblock to flexibility. 

For example, plugging in those automated guided vehicles would require fixed charging stations, which are the monuments Stevens didn’t want. Instead, they get juice wirelessly through invisible stations on the floor. “They can just hang out there for a while and then move on,” Anthony explains. That leaves more floor space open.

Rebuilding the Process
Less obvious but just as crucial was the chance to make Factory ZERO exceedingly forward-thinking. The idea: Real ingenuity takes more than applying the latest manufacturing toys. It takes people. It takes constant feedback between operators — the workers on the floor — and their leaders so that every task is easier as well as more precise.

There’s no better example of this deep revamp than Joshua Ulch’s job during the planning stage. Ulch had the cool title of launch coordinator at Factory ZERO. He and his team were like a football team’s offensive coordinators.

To build the new Silverado EV, he says, his team was given a process from engineering. This is the idealized playbook — but until operators actually test how that works in real life, with real tools on an actual vehicle, they have no idea if the plays will work. 

“We would do a try-out,” Ulch explains, where they would break down every single stage of assembly and every single human interaction — from tool to interface with the item to how that fits on the truck. It’s literally thousands of steps. If there was a logjam, “Is that a quality issue, a tooling issue, a workspace challenge?” Ulch asks. “We started a root cause analysis on how to fix that.” 

Factory ZERO has also added the ability to “flight-simulate” any process using virtual reality — yep, like with a video game. Now an operator can “try out” some part of Silverado EV assembly in VR before those parts even arrive at the facility, so they know the job and can perfect it through repetition and coaching.

“D-Ham” originally opened in 1985 and produced more than 4 million vehicles before being reborn as Factory ZERO, GM’s first fully dedicated all-EV facility.

“D-Ham” originally opened in 1985 and produced more than 4 million vehicles before being reborn as Factory ZERO, GM’s first fully dedicated all-EV facility.

A High-Tech Helping Hand
After interrogating every step of general assembly for the Silverado EV, Ulch and his team handed the reins to Sean Leary, who came from GM’s manufacturing engineering group to lead the integration of a new technology called job pacing screens. These look like big TV monitors over every workstation, but they’re far more. Leary says the idea was to integrate a live instruction manual that plays in front of the operator. It’s the most advanced version of that video you watch to find out how to replace your sink. 

It also includes interactivity, because after every step, the operator uses a device similar to a bar code scanner to tell the screen what boxes they’ve ticked. 

Tamara David, who’s worked as an operator with GM for almost 15 years, has a different name for the job pacing screens: “They’re confidence monitors.” The screens work as a checklist so she doesn’t have to keep track of each action; she can focus solely on doing every step correctly, reducing the cognitive load of her job.

FACTORY ZERO HAS ALSO ADDED THE ABILITY TO “FLIGHT-SIMULATE” ANY PROCESS USING VIRTUAL REALITY. YEP, LIKE A VIDEO GAME.

FACTORY ZERO HAS ALSO ADDED THE ABILITY TO “FLIGHT-SIMULATE” ANY PROCESS USING VIRTUAL REALITY. YEP, LIKE A VIDEO GAME.

Danielle Murray (left) and Tamara David (right), both former employees of D-Ham, have returned to work at Factory ZERO.

Danielle Murray (left) and Tamara David (right), both former employees of D-Ham, have returned to work at Factory ZERO.

Coming Home
Factory ZERO is a story about innovation and change. But if there’s a consistent thread to the face of the plant, it’s one of family. 

Over decades, this plant has been the backbone of thousands of families who built their own lives by making America’s cars. Tamara David visited her dad at D-Ham as a little girl, then worked here as an adult. Now she and her colleague, Danielle Murray, a Detroit native who started at D-Ham way back in 1998, have returned, along with hundreds of other D-Ham’ers. Murray beamed about being back, calling it a “blessing and a beautiful surprise.” 

If this facility works as a team, the head coach might be Jim Quick — who would deny any sort of “boss” label. To him, Factory ZERO is innovative because everyone feels like they’re doing something special, which he says was achieved by valuing the workforce: “From a culture standpoint, we are leveraging the knowledge of the people. We’re including them.”

Murray echoed that remark, and tied it all together, too: “I’ve built a lot of cars, but this feels different. This is more than about a car. And to be at the forefront of it, to learn and to lead with it — I feel a tremendous amount of pride.”

STORY: MICHAEL FRANK / PHOTOGRAPHY: IAN ALLEN

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