Truck Camper Magazine tours the GM Flint Truck Assembly Plant in Michigan with unrestricted access to the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra assembly line.
During our tour of Michigan’s thumb in a 2011 Palomino Maverick Max 2902 last month, we stopped by the General Motors Flint Truck Assembly Plant for what has to be one of the most amazing things we’ve ever experienced as a magazine.
The GM Flint Truck Assembly Plant Factory Tour
We arrived at the assembly plant at 1:00pm for a personal behind the scenes tour. GM had granted Truck Camper Magazine permission to take photographs in the plant, something that they otherwise strictly forbid. More impressively, GM placed no restrictions on what we could photograph or where we could go. This was a no holds barred plant tour.
The enormity of the GM Flint Truck Assembly Plant is something you have to see for yourself to truly understand. The 3.7 million square foot factory opened in 1947 and has assembled over 13 million cars and trucks including 300 1953 Chevrolet Corvettes. I sure wish I had one of those.
Here’s the GM Flint Truck Assembly Plant entrance where we were cleared by security and met Tom Wickham, Plant Communications Manager, and Bob Hooks, Joint Activities Director for Local 598 of the UAW. Bob was to be our tour guide and completely floored us by clearing the rest of his day so he could give us the most complete and thorough plant tour possible.
Not only was Bob a walking talking encyclopedia of seemingly everything in the GM Flint Truck Assembly Plant (he has worked there for over thirty years), but he was also a wonderful communicator who never hesitated to answer our barrage of questions, or stop to show us exactly what was going on at each station. He really cared that we understood the people, process, materials, and culture of the plant.
Just inside the factory floor, the 2011 Motor Trend Truck of the Year award is proudly on display. Bob explained that ever since the 2011 Silverado HD won the 2011 Motor Trend Truck of the Year award, GM truck sales have sky rocketed. In fact, the assembly team was busy training an almost unheard of third shift to keep up with demand.
We saw the trainees during our tour and were excited to learn that 750 employees went to work on the third shift a mere five days after we left the factory. Today the plant employs 2,753 hourly and salaried employees. Now that’s America moving ahead.
Throughout the enormous GM Flint Assembly Plant, there are multiple production lines building multiple parts making a linear step-by-step story almost impossible. To make this article as coherent and complete as possible, I have reassembled our tour into something that resembles a linear flow. Let’s start with the engines.
GM offers a wide assortment of gas and diesel engines in their Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra trucks. These engines are brought into the GM Flint Assembly Plant on metal palettes and placed at the front of an engine and transmission assembly line. Above you can see both the diesel engines (red plugs) and the gas engines (green plugs) waiting to be placed on the production line.
To place the engines onto the engine and transmission assembly line, a GM team member monitors the production schedule and uses a robotic arm to pickup an engine and hang it onto an overhead conveyor. There the engines are literally suspended at an ergonomically correct height for the production team to work on. It’s really amazing to see these large and heavy engines suspended and gently moving down the line in mid-air.
We are a broken record at Truck Camper Magazine when it comes to the importance of safe truck and camper matching (see, “Matching a Truck and Camper”). A critical part of a safe truck and camper match is carefully optioning a truck to give you the payload necessary for a specific camper. What you may not know is how much the engine and transmission choice can factor into a truck’s payload capacity.
On the engine and transmission assembly line, we found ourselves face to face with suspended gas and diesel engines lined up for easy visual comparison. Compared to the gas engines, the diesel engines were enormous. The difference between the Allison transmission and standard transmissions was also clearly evident based on size. Finally, the four wheel drive transfer cases were right there to see adding yet more mass. Just compare the gas and standard transmission above to the diesel engine and Allison transmission below.
Before anyone makes a judgement about the merits of a diesel over a gas engine based on a “bigger must be better” mentality, consider this; our first truck was a 2005 Chevrolet Silverado 3500 extended cab, dually, 4×2, work truck with an 8.1L V8 gas engine. With our then 2004 Lance 1030, we took that truck cross country for six months up and down mountains, through rain, snow, wind, and everything in between.
That truck was awesome and, as our experience proves, every bit as capable for a cross country adventure as our current diesel. Gas engines may be smaller and lighter, but they get the job done and have the added benefit of allowing a truck to offer significantly more payload. I love our diesel, but our experience at the GM plant had me looking at gas engines again.
GM offers several different types of transmissions including automatic, manual, and the highly regarded Allison transmission. What interested me was seeing just how much larger the Allison transmission was than the other available transmissions.
This is a container of four wheel drive transfer cases. Again, four wheel drive is an important option for many truck campers, but it adds yet more weight to the truck and decreases your payload capacity.
Four wheel drive is an essential option for any truck camper that wants to travel off-road or in inclement weather (we would not go without four wheel drive), but it’s important to keep in mind how this option impacts payload.
Bob (pictured above) was very generous with his time and knowledge at every step of the production line. Here he’s educating Angela about the different gas and diesel engine assemblies.
GM truck chassis are assembled upside down and then flipped right side up. We watched an orange robot pickup an upside down chassis, roll it over 180 degrees, and then gently place it on another production line conveyor right side up and ready to go.
After the chassis are flipped, they get their engines and transmissions installed. Here we saw suspended engines coming from the engine and transmission production line on an overhead conveyor and the truck chassis coming in on a ground level conveyor. Two GM team members then carefully lowered the engine and transmissions into the truck chassis.
GM’s Flint Truck Assembly Plant is actually a two story plant. Once the truck chassis has its engine, transmission, radiator, and tires, it travels to the upper level via a vertical conveyor.
As the chassis are being assembled, the truck cabs are being welded by a small army of robots. A few feet above the welding robot production line was a catwalk where you could stand and watch the sparks fly. It was both amazing and odd to witness these robot arms at work with no human interaction.
It was also fascinating and mesmerizing. Naturally, using robots on a production line is old hat in the automotive industry where the need for ever greater efficiency and tighter tolerances demand robotic automation.
The truck cabs come off the assembly line like clockwork. In the first photograph you can see the welds the robots just completed.
Quality control is another aspect of production that is now assisted by automation. Once the truck cabs have been welded by the robot production line, they are inspected in the above enclosure by a set of robotic infrared cameras and lasers. This process ensures that every weld is within GM’s tolerances before allowing a truck cab to continue down the assembly line.
As we drove from one area to the next in the factory, we passed hundreds of large containers full of truck components. Here we passed containers of sheet metal awaiting the assembly line. Bob explained that every component is brought to the assembly line just in time and carefully organized and monitored so the right part is brought to the line at the right time. This process is called sequencing.
One change for 2011 that Bob wanted to point out was the insulating and sound adsorbing felt GM has added to the truck cabs. In this photograph you can see the sound absorbing felt on the floor of the empty truck cab. Bob stated that the felt decreases cab noise by as much as 80%.
We struggled to find parallels between truck manufacturing and truck camper manufacturing and found a connection here. Every truck cab goes down the line with what is called a rider in the truck camper industry. In the above photograph you see paperwork, aka the rider, attached to the front of the truck cab. That paperwork contains all of the information about that specific cab build and is reviewed and checked as it goes down the line.
Unlike with truck camper manufacturing, the rider is only for this part of the production line and does not follow the truck through the entire plant. When the cab is completed on this production line, the paperwork is filed before the truck cab progresses to the next assembly area.
The truck instrument panels, also known as IPs, are brought onto the production line already assembled and ready to install. It was really neat to see these completed instrument panels suspended in mid-air, air bag warning stickers and all. The only things missing were the steering wheels.
To install the instrument panels, a GM team member used a robotic control arm and guided the IPs into the truck cabs where a specialized team immediately went to work fastening the instrument panels and making all the necessary connections. All of this took maybe two minutes.
We were at the factory for well over three hours and kept finding more and more assembly lines. Here is the door assembly line showing different interior colors. We literally drove past this line but didn’t have time to really check it out. You could probably spend a week in the GM Flint Truck Assembly Plant and not fully grasp every aspect of production.
Three major assemblies were now converging together, the truck cabs, the truck beds, and the truck chassis. We stopped to watch the truck beds coming down the line towards the, “marriage machine”.
Standing on the cat walk, we were mere feet from this massive robotic system. We watched in awe as truck cabs and beds were brought in on one line, completed truck chassis were brought in on another line, and then the three components were assembled into a truck.
At first Bob brought us to the, “marriage machine” and we looked at it from eye level through a protective cage. Then I noticed a set of stairs with an elevated cat walk. “Can we go up there for a better vantage?” I asked. “You sure can,” replied Bob. It was just incredible how much access GM gave us.
As you can see, the scale and precision on display was incredible. Bob pointed out the vertical chassis body bolts that the truck cabs and beds were precisely lined up and lowered onto again, and again, and again. He also explained that this machine was the most sophisticated and babied machine in the entire plant.
A parade of married trucks comes out of the cage like models on a runway.
Then the trucks return to the lower level of the factory to be completed. It’s really something to see these large trucks moving vertically on a conveyor system.
On the last leg of the assembly line, external sheet metal and components are installed to complete the trucks. Here we see GM team members installing a front hood. First the hood was lifted off a pallet using a robotic arm and then two GM team members guided and installed the hood by hand.
Here’s one step on the GM production line that is exactly the same as it is on a truck camper assembly line; decal application. Here a GM team member applies a Z71 4X4 decal just as we’ve watched scores of others apply logo decals on truck campers many times before.
Again we watch a truck component pulled off a palette and installed onto the truck by a GM team member controlling a robotic arm and guiding the component into place. The process is designed to be as ergonomic as possible to reduce physical stress on the worker while ensuring precision and quality.
Here you see a completed Chevy Silverado 3500 dually drive off the production line. This is the first time the assembled truck has been driven.
The completed trucks drive about fifty feet to the emissions test area. The trucks are tested to ensure they pass the government mandated emissions levels along with a battery of other quality control tests.
After being assembled and tested, the trucks drive onto the Care Line. Under a few hundred feet of extremely bright light, the trucks are inspected from bumper to bumper for anything that doesn’t meet GM’s quality control standards. The Care Line is essentially another assembly line with stations where GM team members inspect a specific area of the truck. When the truck passes each quality control station, it passes to the next, until it finally reaches the end of the line and drives out the door. 300 brand new Chevy and GMC trucks leave the plant every shift.
During the rigorous emissions testing and quality control process, some trucks need to be pulled off the line for adjustment. These trucks are tended to in an area a few feet away from the Care Line and are then sent through the entire emissions and Care Line process again. This is repeated until the truck passes. With their 5-year/100,000 mile warranty, quality control is a top priority at GM.
A red, white, and blue demo truck was parked among a few completed trucks to one side of the production line. According to Bob, this demo truck is essentially an example truck that has passed quality control and can be used for demonstrations and testing.
What really grabbed our attention was the bumper sticker prominently placed on the front hood of the truck proclaiming, “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Toyota”. How’s that for a competitive spirit? Maybe we should have a bumper sticker that says, “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Motorhomes”.
After seeing what appeared to be at least seventy-five of trucks going down the production line, I expected to see hundreds, maybe thousands of trucks behind the building. In reality there was probably a hundred total trucks in the yard. Bob explained that they are shipped out to dealerships about as fast as they are completed.
What was even more exciting than the GM Flint Truck Assembly Plant tour was our sense that this visit and the resulting article could be the beginning of a renewed relationship between the truck camper community and the major truck manufacturers.
Looking at copies of Camper Coachman Magazine in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there is plenty of evidence that such a relationship once existed to the benefit of the major truck manufacturers and the truck camper industry and community. And so it could be again.
If anyone from the General Motors family is reading this article, I want to personally invite you to get more involved with the truck camper community and marketplace. Reach out to our domestic truck camper and truck camper gear manufacturers. They are eager to work with you. The truck camper community is strong and vibrant and we buy thousands of heavy duty pickup trucks every year. We would welcome your interest and participation in our community.
Thank you to Tom Wickham and Bob Hooks and the GM Flint Truck Assembly Plant assembly team. We look forward to returning to see your 2012 Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra. Please keep us in the loop.