General Motors is investing half a billion dollars in expanding and retooling its 59-year-old Arlington plant to build the Cadillac Escalades of the future. What exactly does it take to crank out hundreds of luxurious SUVs every eight hours?
by CHRISTOPHER WYNN
photographs by ADAM FISH
The General Motors Assembly Plant in Arlington is filled with cacophonous sounds. Whooshing and whirring hydraulic robot arms slice through the air with efficient grace. A conveyor system more than 28 miles long transports disemboweled SUV bodies with a rhythmic clank-clank-clank. And everywhere there is music — distinct bell tones that sound like a child picking out a melody on an electric keyboard. The notes are familiar: the Star Wars theme; “Mary Had a Little Lamb”; “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Each song snippet denotes a specific workstation that needs help or more parts in this vast, meandering place — 4.25 million square feet on 250 acres. Touring the sprawling assembly line, I make a joke about the famous five-note motif heard in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Turns out, they have that, too.
GM’s 59-year-old factory is a staggering mashup of old and new. The first car built here was a ’54 Pontiac Chieftain. The plant has been retooled many times since, but the industrial-grade restrooms have never been renovated. Today, the Arlington plant is the exclusive builder of GM’s big-dog SUVs: the Cadillac Escalade and its slightly less gussied-up siblings, the Chevrolet Tahoe, the Chevrolet Suburban and the GMC Yukon. More than 1,200 of them are built a day, in three 8-hour shifts. More than 30 percent of these Family Trucksters will be exported to customers in Russia, China and the Middle East. Indeed, electronic signs posted along the assembly line flash the occasional red-lettered affirmation: World Class Trucks! At other times, you may see the word starved, which signals a workstation on the line needing fresh parts.
The plant is a success story for GM, which less than four years ago declared bankruptcy and began a massive reorganization. Fast-forward to this summer and GM scored in the top three — right between leader Porsche and Lexus — in the 2013 J.D. Power Initial Quality Survey. Two of the SUVs built at the Arlington plant, the Escalade and the Tahoe, scored tops in their individual segments. (Quality control here can lead to strange places. When a batch of SUVs failed paint inspection, inspectors eventually traced the problem to an unapproved hand lotion installed in one of the restrooms.) Now, GM’s Arlington workhorse is moving into a bold future. The plant is completing a new metal-stamping facility that has bragging rights to three 1.5-million-pound presses.
The existing body shop has also been expanded and renovated as part of a $531 million overhaul to prepare for the next generation of large SUVs. The highest stakes? Those lay on the redesigned Escalade. Sure, GM’s crown-jewel luxury ’ute is reportedly having its unveiling on October 7 in New York, but it is from — and gets its dash and DNA — right here in Texas.
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