When old Detroit-Hamtramck plant reopens as Factory ZERO, it’ll be unlike any other in US

DETROIT — Less than 5 miles north of General Motors’ Detroit Renaissance Center world headquarters sits a vintage 35-year-old factory that less than two years ago was destined for death.

But in a reversal of fate, the plant is on the edge of a transformation that will make it GM’s most advanced assembly plant in North America.

Factory ZERO, formerly Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly, will be the epicenter for GM’s vision for an all-electric future when GM starts making the 2022 GMC Hummer electric pickup there late next year. The self-driving Cruise Origin car will follow, then several yet-to-be-named EVs.

Overseeing the plant’s metamorphosis is former assembly line worker, now Factory ZERO’s Plant Manager, Jim Quick. Quick, 50, is a tireless GM lifer who spends 12-hour days there ensuring that Factory ZERO will be the plant of the future.

Factory ZERO Plant Director Jim Quick stands by a sign outside of the plant in Detroit. The factory will be General Motors’ most technologically advanced plant in the country when it starts running next year. Quick started off at GM 27 years ago on the assembly line himself, now he’s helping build this super factory.

“It’s an opportunity of a career,” said Quick, who started with GM 27 years ago on the assembly line at the now-defunct Moraine Assembly plant in Ohio. “We are going to be one of the most technologically advanced plants, not just in our footprint, but across the industry. We’ll be GM’s first purpose-built, all-electric vehicle assembly plant with contiguous battery assembly as well.”

Factory ZERO will be full of firsts with technology that will trump that of most U.S. auto plants. For example, it will run on the powerful wireless technology called 5G, which allows robots, machines and computers to talk more smoothly with each other.

GM will implement a “stop-station” process across general assembly, whereby automated carts bring the vehicle to stations of workers instead of workers standing along a traditional assembly line as the car moves along. The plant will also have simulation software on the floor for on-the-spot training or troubleshooting. And it will make EV batteries in-house.

“It definitely will be the factory to be at and the most highly advanced plant in North America, if not the globe,” said Mike Plater, UAW Local 22 shop chairman. “Everything’s going to be brand new and it’ll have technology that’s never been used before. The stop-station assembly — It’s never been done before in general assembly.”

Beyond the technology, it was also the plant that set the model for many of GM’s factory protocols in operating safely amid the coronavirus pandemic, first implementing face masks, social distancing and contact tracing, for example.

‘Moving at ventilator speed’

In November 2018, the factory was all but dead.

GM said it would permanently shutter it and three other factories in the United States to save money. GM began transferring hundreds of Detroit-Hamtramck’s workers to other plants, including Flint Assembly.

But D-Ham, as it was called for short, got a reprieve during the 2019 UAW contract talks when GM agreed to retool it to build all-electric vehicles. GM has said it plans to deliver 30 new EVs to market by 2025.

So from the minute the final Chevrolet Impala sedan rolled off the assembly line Feb. 27, Quick, Plater and about 90 hourly trades workers got to work tearing apart the plant. GM brought in about 900 construction workers to level the walls, rip off the roof and disembowel the innards of the plant.

About a month later, in March, GM would shut down all its factories in North America for eight weeks as the pandemic proliferated. But not Factory ZERO, in which GM was investing $2.2 billion to retool before the end of 2021.

“It’s been a six-day workweek operation because there is so much to do and the time constraints to get it done to build the Hummer on time for launch,” Plater said.

So the facility would became GM’s model for how to safely run its other plants amid the pandemic.

“We were one of the leaders in the company to implement protocols such as masks, physical distancing, hand sanitization, how to deal with cases when they came up, contact tracing — because we were here every day,” Quick said. “We did all of that with speed and with a lot of collaboration with the UAW here locally.”

Decision-making became streamlined. Factory ZERO applied lessons GM learned when it partnered with Ventec Life Systems to make ventilators early last spring, Quick said, when GM had to adapt and learn to make the medical devices within days. That mindset has helped GM move faster to develop EVs, creating a need to add about 3,000 jobs across the company and pull forward some product launches.

“We used the term ‘moving at ventilator speed,’ ” Quick said. “The thing we learned in taking on the ventilator challenge has transcended in how we run our operations. We want every aspect of our operation to run at ventilator speed.”

‘The roof is back on’

At the moment, the plant’s general assembly area remains largely bare except for the columns, which were recently painted white, Plater said. The 4.1-million-square-foot plant has grown slightly in height and width too.

“They raised the roof in the paint shop because the vehicles are taller now, so it had to grow,” Plater said. “The body shop had to be put farther out too.”

Construction on the battery shop has not started yet, Plater said.

“The roof is back on and the walls are back up so we’re about a third of the way through the paint shop completion right now, which is where the bulk of the roof and walls were taken down,” Quick added.

GM doesn’t have a specific target date for completion other than to say it will start production of the 2022 GMC Hummer pickup there in late 2021.

But Plater, who started at the plant as an electrician apprentice 18 years ago, said the design of the plant will be worker-friendly, in part because of Quick’s own experience as a general assembly line worker in the past.

“It gives him an understanding of what a person on the plant floor has to go through on the plant floor and that’s unique versus other plant managers I’ve dealt with in the past,” Plater said. “He understands what it takes to build a vehicle.”

Daily calls from past workers

GM has recently started to train some employees thanks to one of the first technological advances Factory ZERO has birthed: virtual training.

In October, GM called back about 150 employees, both hourly and salary. GM had transferred nearly 600 hourly workers after the plant made the final Impala. Quick calls these 150 people the factory’s “core team.” They started training at GM’s preproduction facility at GM’s Global Technical Center in Warren.

The team uses simulation software that GM developed to practice the hands-on skills needed to assembly the vehicles and work with the machines and tools once they’re in the plant. That software will make its way to the factory floor to be used for on-the-spot training once production begins, Quick said.

“So that is a change,” Quick said. “This software will be available to the team and leaders on tablets right on the line, at their fingertips, if they need to work through an issue. That’s what makes us so unique.”

GM will start offering the hourly workers who transferred to other GM plants a chance to return to Factory ZERO in the second and third quarters of next year, he said.

GM has said that when the plant is fully operational, it will employ about 2,200 people. But that is probably a year or two out given ramp-up time, Plater said. He gets calls and emails daily from hourly workers who left and want to know when they can return.

“I answer every one of them,” Plater said. “I think we’ll get the majority back.”

Stop-station assembly

Factory ZERO will be the first of GM’s factories in the world to extensively use the stop-station assembly process in general assembly.

“Because of the way the plant is imagined, we needed a different support system for the operators,” said Quick, who will have a different work cadence and do more work on the vehicles than they would on a traditional assembly line.

What that means is you won’t see the typical moving assembly line where a vehicle in its various forms and parts crawls down the line, often on “skillets,” which are big pieces of wood that can move up and down.

Instead, “automated guided carts” will bring the vehicle body and chassis to a station where the workers will do the appropriated work for that part of the assembly process. Then the cart delivers that body and chassis to the next station where employees will perform the next steps in the process.

It is called stop-station assembly and while it has been used in other auto plants in specific areas such as the body shop, very few, if any have used it for general assembly, Quick said.

“This provides a very lean and flexible environment to accommodate mix demand or a change to the vehicle. It adds content to the operator, they will need to memorize more and be able to apply more content in their station,” Quick said. “More tasks can be done at a single stop-station than during a continuous moving assembly line.”

GM has been running simulations of stop-station assembly since May, Quick said. Another advantage to this process is cost. With a traditional moving assembly line, if GM needed to change out machinery to make a new model vehicle, that would be costly. Now it can merely tweak the stop-station operator’s tools and tasks, Quick said.

For workers, this process is easier on their bodies. There will be less walking and less repetition of one single task, thereby lowering the chances of repetitive work injuries, Quick said. It also ensure top quality.

“It’s having the ability and full control with a stop-station, having 5G and wireless tools, it’s built-in quality in its purest form,” Quick said. “Defects do not pass out of the station.”

Remaking plant culture

Factory ZERO is also the first automotive plant in the United States to have 5G connectivity throughout it, Quick said. Mercedes-Benz has used 5G in a plant in southern Germany.

The benefit of having 5G is it is fast, reliable and has the bandwidth to allow all the connected devices in the plant to quickly transmit data to each other. Nearly all the robots, tools, machines and computers have an online component, Quick said.

But beyond that technology, there is the task of bringing the plant into the 21st century in other ways.

Factory ZERO was built in 1985 and has had many monikers through the years. The fact that it was built at all is remarkable. One of its early nicknames was Poletown because GM built it on the site of a Polish immigrant community straddling the Detroit-Hamtramck border. The hulking facility spans the two cities with the body shop sitting in Hamtramck and the general assembly area in Detroit.

The Polish neighborhood had been home to about 4,000 residents, more than 1,000 houses, several Catholic churches and about 100 businesses. Government leaders used eminent domain to seize and raze those properties on GM’s behalf. That move made national news and stirred up protests included a nearly monthlong sit-in at the neighborhood’s Immaculate Conception Church that police eventually broke up with arrests.

So Quick is keenly focused on Factory ZERO’s culture too.

“Part of that is we’re making some physical changes to the plant,” Quick said. “We’re putting in an open-office concept and it’s going to be a very inviting environment and an environment of inclusion that promotes an engagement among employees that we’ve never seen before.”

‘Coming hard, coming fast’

While GM has many technologically advanced plants across the globe, Quick promises none will be like Factory ZERO, calling it the “flagship battery plant and electric vehicle plant.”

“We’re the epicenter for zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion for the company,” Quick said, referring to the company’s vision with electric and self-driving cars.

Quick said GM is changing the way it brings vehicles to market in the future by using simulation, not just in Factory ZERO’s operations, but throughout the company. It is one of the reasons Barra cited recently in a presentation to Wall Street for GM’s ability to fast-track its EV development and bring the Hummer pickup and Cadillac Lyriq electric SUV to market faster than anticipated.

“The result is a leaner, faster General Motors when it comes to launching a vehicle and bringing it to market and we’re at the epicenter of that,” Quick said. “It benefits the consumer, our employees and the shareholder. The competition needs to look out because we’re coming hard and we’re coming fast.”