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New Six-Speed Transmissions Begin Production At Revamped, Historic Willow Run Facility

GM announced the start of production of a new, modular family of Hydra-Matic six-speed automatic transmissions for rear-drive applications at the upgraded Willow Run facility in Ypsilanti. The 6L80 six-speed transmission debuts in the 2006 Chevy Corvette, Cadillac STS-V and XLR-V, and several models of GM's all-new 2007 full-size SUVs.

Production of the transmissions is the culmination of a 450-million-dollar, nearly 3-year investment at the Ypsilanti Transmissions Operations (YTO) facility, which establishes a new team concept working arrangement in a separate area of the nearly 65-year-old plant and launches GM's drive to produce up to three million six-speed transmissions annually. By 2010, GM will introduce 10 variants of six-speed transmissions, including front-drive models, which can enhance vehicle fuel economy by up to 4 percent when compared to four- and five-speed automatics.

"The introduction of these new six-speeds will mark a new chapter in GM's 65-year history of producing efficient, reliable, smooth-shifting automatic transmissions," said Kent Sears, GM Powertrain vice president of manufacturing. "The new, state-of-the-art Ypsilanti transmission facility is the first of many six-speed plants that will enable us to produce more than three million six-speed automatics annually by 2010."

The investment at Willow Run, announced in 2003, literally establishes a new plant within a plant, due to a new work agreement. The result preserved nearly 600 jobs and precluded building a brand-new facility. Approximately 20 percent of the 4.8-million-square-foot facility was gutted and refitted for six-speed production. This included a new floor, enhanced lighting, new paint and the creation of a clean-room assembly area, which is separated from the rest of the six-speed facility with glass walls and automated doors. Also, new production machinery and machines designed for worker safety were implemented.

"Manufacturing at Willow Run has been a part of the southeast Michigan community since 1939," said Kingsley P. Wootton, plant manager. "Our strong partnership with UAW Local 735 resulted in a unique work agreement that ensures we continue this tradition with new six-speeds that are competitively produced world-class products."

Wootton also said that a strong partnership with the Ypsilanti township and state and federal officials in Michigan helped ensure that the plant would remain a competitive, state-of-the-art manufacturing force in the region.

The historic Willow Run plant dates back to the early 1940s, when it produced war planes during World War II. In fact, the plant's configuration sloped from west to east, so finished planes could be easily rolled out of the east doors and on to the expansive Willow Run runway. It was converted to a dedicated transmission plant in 1953, after a fire destroyed another transmission facility in Livonia, Mich.

Team concept

A new team concept working arrangement was developed for the six-speed production facility, which includes members of UAW Local 735 and salaried employees. The team concept arrangement includes cohesive teams of four to six members, with a designated leader to promote efficient, more immediate production value. All team members were interviewed via a joint selection process from Local 735 applicants.

Team members also worked with engineering personnel for 24 months prior to production launch to provide input on product design and its impact on manufacturing. This empowerment resulted in product and process improvements that enable more efficient manufacturing and higher-quality transmissions.

A heightened safety initiative also was launched with the team concept arrangement, with a workplace goal of "zero incidents." Procedures and equipment to facilitate this goal include the elimination of conventional fork trucks on the floor - replaced with "tugger" vehicles. Also, all equipment was assessed through a joint safety committee with the goal of eliminating hazards.

Micron tolerance

Three product focus business teams fabricate and sub-assemble transmission components, each delivering sub-assembled products to the main line. These sub-assemblies are then integrated into the transmission case on the main line to produce a finished transmission. The business teams include:

  • The gears and shafts business team, which consists of gear machining, shaft and drive welding, machining and sub-assembly.
  • The prismatic business team, which conducts machining of the transmission case, bell, valve body and cover, as well as their sub-assemblies.
  • The assembly business team, which consists of clutch sub-assembly, transmission assembly, testing and "button up" finishing procedures.

All material is delivered to the teams via "pull" systems - also known as "just in time" - to the point of use. Transmissions are assembled in a clean room environment to reduce sediment and improve quality.

"The precision and attention to detail of the manufacturing process are world-class," said Wootton. "Machined components tolerances are measured in microns - that's millionths of an inch. This precision will bolster GM's reputation for smooth, reliable transmissions."

GM's six-speed transmissions are validated to 200,000 miles, or more, of service and the Ypsilanti Transmission Operations' "zero defects" mantra helps ensure trouble-free performance. Numerous quality check stations prevent defective or inaccurate parts from continuing down the production line.

Upon final assembly, every six-speed transmission is hot-tested for up to four minutes. This includes connecting the transmission to a motor and running it through the gears, as well as spinning it at various rpm levels. All performance parameters are checked, as well as noise levels.

Six-speed details

GM's new Hydra-Matic 6L80 transmission is the first of a new family of modular six-speed rear-drive transmissions. The transmissions feature two overdrive gears and a wide, 6.04:1 gear ratio spread to improve performance and fuel economy when compared with conventional four- and five-speed automatic transmissions. With two overdrive gears, engine rpm is reduced by approximately 9 percent at 60 mph - a reduction to about 1,500 rpm. Lower engine rpm can bolster fuel economy because less fuel is used. A lower-rpm cruising speed also enhances smoothness and reduces noise heard in the vehicle's cabin.

GM estimates the wide ratio spread can help cut 0-60 mph times by as much as 7 percent and enhance fuel economy by up to 4 percent.

Engineering the all-new Hydra-Matic six-speed transmission with a modular architecture enabled engineers and designers to design a transmission that is easily adapted to a wide range of vehicles. Equally important, the new six-speed automatic's modular design means any of the four primary variants can be manufactured in the same assembly plant.

The modular design of the transmission permits several versions of the transmission to be tailored with minimal changes to the precise performance requirements of different vehicles. As many as 47 percent of all components are common for all four transmission variants. In fact, the new transmission design is so flexible that different variants theoretically could run sequentially down the same assembly line. The new six-speed automatic's manufacturing plan dovetails completely with GM's Global Manufacturing System strategy to implement a common manufacturing process and procedure at every worldwide GM assembly plant.

Technically sophisticated clutch-to-clutch operation reduces complexity and packaging. It also enhances the performance feel of the transmission, as shifts feel more immediate and precise. It is a simple, less complex design that enables the six-speed transmission to be packaged in a size not much larger than a four-speed automatic.

It all means the all-new six-speed RWD automatic will maintain Hydra-Matic's reputation for world-class refinement and durability while also continuing GM Powertrain's ongoing initiative to produce the world's most durable and reliable engines and transmissions. In fact, GM Powertrain engineers are confident the combination of the new transmission's modular architecture and the integration of GM's Global Manufacturing System common manufacturing processes will ensure the new six-speed RWD automatic is as reliable and durable as any transmission carrying the respected Hydra-Matic name.

YTO's six-speed facility is currently configured to produce up to 1,500 transmissions per day. The facility can also produce different versions of the transmission concurrently, with minimal changeover. The six-speed RWD transmissions will be featured in 25 different models globally by 2007.

In addition to the Hydra-Matic six-speed RWD family, GM recently introduced the new Allison 1000 six-speed automatic for Duramax diesel-equipped heavy-duty trucks. GM also will introduce a Hydra-Matic six-speed automatic for front-wheel-drive/all-wheel-drive vehicles; it debuts in the 2007 Saturn Aura sedan. GM also will produce six-speed transmissions at additional facilities in Michigan and Europe. GM Powertrain and GM Daewoo are working to develop six-speed transmissions for front-drive global applications.