GM To Re-Open Spring Hill Plant To Build Chevy Equinoxes
By Chris Haak
Today, General Motors officially confirmed the vehicle that will be produced at its currently-idled Spring Hill, Tennessee plant. The answer: the Chevrolet Equinox. The company can’t seem to keep up with Equinox demand ever since the current-generation vehicle was launched for the 2010 model year, despite running a steady three-shift operation at the CAMI plant in Ontario, and even conducting final assembly at another plant to further add capacity. Even more interesting than a solution (coming in mid-2012) to Equinox supply shortages, though, is the fact that according to the company, Spring Hill will be able to produce nearly any GM vehicle that is in high demand thanks to its ultra-flexible operation.
GM’s Spring Hill assembly plant began its life in 1990 as Saturn’s home base while the “different kind of company” built its “different kind of cars” in the early 1990s. Of course, we all know how the Saturn story turned out – not only did the division consume resources that may have otherwise helped GM to improve its lame 1980s and 1990s product lineup, but eventually GM’s internal politics prevailed and Saturn was starved of resources – and much-needed products – until it was too late, and the brand was shuttered in 2009 as part of GM’s trip through bankruptcy.
By the time Saturn closed its doors for good, none of its vehicles had the unique plastic construction that the original cars were known for, and in fact, they were just slightly-modified versions of existing GM models. The Saturn Sky was just a Pontiac Solstice a different wrapper. The Aura was a G6 that was a bit nicer. The Relay [shudder] was a Pontiac Montana. The Vue was an Opel Antara. The Astra was, of all things, a Belgium-built Opel Astra. None of the final Saturns were even built in Spring Hill, which had been retooled prior to the bankruptcy to build the Chevrolet Traverse large crossover. The Traverse is now built in Lansing with its cousins, the Enclave and Acadia, since the plant no longer needs the capacity for the Saturn Outlook. Weird irony, right?
Yet the brand lives on even after its death in a few ways. The Saturn Vue has been reborn as the Chevrolet Captiva (for fleet sales only), the Aura’s DNA lives on (sort of) in the Chevrolet Malibu, and the Outlook is very closely related to the Chevrolet Traverse. Though the Spring Hill assembly plant hasn’t built new cars in several years, it was put on standby status following the Chapter 11 proceedings, and its engine plant is still churning out Ecotec four cylinders. Moreover, when Spring Hill was retooled from a plant that built small, plastic-bodied vehicles to one that built full-size metal-bodied crossovers, it became a flexible manufacturing facility. This newly-announced investment of a relatively-modest $61 million will bring 685 jobs back to the plant, many of whom are Spring Hill natives who followed the Traverse temporarily from Tennessee to Lansing.
From the GM press release, it sounds as if any GM passenger vehicle, except for body-on-frame trucks, could be built at Spring Hill once the updates to the plant are complete. If true, the plant could be the ultimate not-so-secret weapon for GM, giving the company the ability to quickly add capacity to take advantage of favorable market conditions for one or more models before demand has fallen off. Of course, that’s not to say that there is the necessary supplier network in place around Spring Hill for whatever vehicles have to be built at any given time. Spring Hill is about 40 miles south of Nashville, and more than 100 miles from Chattanooga, where VW has built its new Passat plant and associated supplier park. Presumably in the two years since Spring Hill last built whole cars, whatever supplier network was in place may have either folded or moved on to work for other OEMs.
Later, in a timeline still to be announced, GM will invest another $183 million in Spring Hill to bring a to-be-disclosed midsize model, whose production will eventually add 1,196 more jobs on top of the other 685.
Though the company still has under-utilized capacity in the US, and even more in Europe, with the falling dollar and rising yuan and yen in Asia, it would seem to be within the realm of possibilities that Spring Hill could build vehicles for export as well. Note that the company did not say that it could build any US or GMNA car or crossover, but ANY GM car or crossover. The plant’s newfound flexibility will open up many, many possibilities.
GM still has one other plant on standby status, which is its historic Janesville assembly plant in Wisconsin. That plant opened in 1919, and most recently assembled GMT900 full-size SUVs and medium-duty trucks. While most of its workforce has either transferred to other GM facilities, retired, or accepted buyouts, it seems reasonably likely that it too could spring back to life if the domestic auto market continues to improve. With the most recent contract between GM and the UAW, Janesville hung onto its “standby” status rather than slipping to “closed,” so there remains some hope for that one as well.
The big news isn’t that a plant is re-opening (though it certainly is for the folks in Spring Hill), but that it will be an extremely flexible one, and one that will enable GM to better match production to demand. That, in turn, should give the company the chance to keep costs low and revenue high. Rather than worrying about cutting costs and servicing crushing debt loads, GM is now worrying about how to build more vehicles. Indeed, it has been an impressive turnaround story.