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Case Study - General Motors Grand Rapids Metal Fabrication Plant

Oct. 17, 2008
The General Motors Grand Rapids Metal Fabrication Plant houses four operational areas in its 2,000,000-sq.-ft. facility: Tool & Die Operations, Blanking, the Press Room, and Metal Assembly. The Press Room is where automotive body/structural ...

The General Motors Grand Rapids Metal Fabrication Plant houses four operational areas in its 2,000,000-sq.-ft. facility: Tool & Die Operations, Blanking, the Press Room, and Metal Assembly.

The Press Room is where automotive body/structural parts are formed. Some of those parts are welded together in Metal Assembly before being shipped to an assembly plant.

Many pieces of equipment used throughout the plant require cooling, which is carried out by way of a large — more than 180,000 gallon — closed-loop, cooling water system.

The cooling water system, which also is called the welder water system, circulates through a massive matrix of plumbing that covers the entire plant, cooling various equipment and systems such as hydraulic systems, clutch systems, hundreds of welding robots, welding guns and controllers (see Figure 2).

This matrix consists of pipes and hoses that vary in size from 10-in. mains all the way down to -in. hoses and smaller orifices.

Around the year 2000, Metal Assembly began experiencing unusual equipment failures.

The weld cables (kickless cables) on the welding robots would become completely clogged, sometimes to the point of splitting. They continually experienced low-flow faults to the robot welding tips.

These issues led to production downtime as equipment parts were replaced and repairs made. Another complaint - perhaps the largest - was from the maintenance personnel. They complained of an unpleasant odor coming from the cooling water as they made the repairs.

Quaker Chemical Corp.’s relationship with this General Motors plant began in 1998, with a contract to provide chemical management services at all 12 U.S. GM metal fabricating facilities.

During the first few years of the contract, a basic chemical management program was in place.

Quaker assumed management of all oils and greases for the plant, including price comparison shopping, purchasing, maintaining appropriate inventory levels, and tracking usage throughout the plant, as well as condition

monitoring of the blank wash fluid used in the metal forming process. The focus of the program was to reduce the amount of spending for chemicals for the plant.

In 2003, Quaker ( was awarded a second, expandedscope contract with GM, and chemical management became more integrated into the plant itself.

The number of chemicals managed by Quaker grew to include practically everything — paint pens, glues, and welding rods, among other items.

Quaker also became responsible for managing the plant’s material safety data sheets system — a record management and retention system for every chemical item used in the plant. Chemical usage and cost were significantly reduced by implementation of several projects led by the chemical manager, making it difficult to achieve additional chemical savings.

By the end of the second contract term, all of the “low hanging fruit” had begun to disappear, and GM staff members wondered whether their chemical management services program could deliver any additional benefits.

Chemical costs were at their lowest possible levels, eliminating the possibility of squeezing out any more savings.

In 2007, Quaker was awarded a contract renewal with GM.

This chemical management contract was structured in a way that encouraged the chemical manager to look beyond strictly chemical savings; it allowed the chemical manager to go after process savings as well.

At this point, Quaker had been in the plant for nearly 10 years. In working together for so long, the customer and chemical manager at the plant level felt and acted as though they were working for the same company with a common goal: to optimize chemical management and reduce costs.

The customer trusted Quaker to know and be a part of GM’s process and procedures. This level of confidence led to an open exchange that benefits both parties.

“When all the low-hanging fruit is gone, we need to grow closer to the customer and their manufacturing/ reporting processes, to discover what can be improved upon to be of even greater value to the plant,” Roger Chmura, operations manager for Quaker, said.

That is reinforced by an excellent working relationship with the customer, in which the customer knows and trusts that its chemical management services provider is working in their best interest.

It was this relationship that helped GM succeed in tackling this cooling water system glitch.

Why now?
There was general consensus that the cooling water system in the plant was contaminated with oil.

On multiple occasions Metal Assembly complained, the problem was examined, and meetings were held involving plant engineers, plant maintenance, Metal Assembly supervisors, chemical management, the wastewater treatment provider, and the oil supplier.

Many suggestions and ideas were recorded during these meetings, but none of them succeeded in resolving the issue. The meetings always ended without a true plan; thus the contamination issue would fall off the agenda until Metal Assembly complained again, and the cycle would start all over again.

The chemical management services provider was involved primarily due to its relationship with the cooling water treatment provider and the oil supplier.

The chemical management services provider is a “value added resource” within the plant. After ten years of trusted service, the customer has come to accept the chemical manager as part of the team. As part of the team, the chemical manager was invited to a problem-solving class held by the customer. The class introduced the chemical manager to a methodology GM calls “Statistical Engineering” – a disciplined philosophy of root cause convergence based on strategy and contrast.

Statistical engineering had typically been used for solving quality and warranty issues, but by training the chemical manager, the scope had been broadened.

Once the chemical manager was trained in statistical engineering, the chemical manager analyzed the cooling water contamination issue from this new, skilled viewpoint.

By applying the statistical engineering methods of the customer and working closely with many people in the plant, a true solution was finally realized; the trusting relationships, a deep knowledge of the systems, access to process information, and speaking the plant’s problem solving language had all come together.

“Training the chemical management supplier in technical problem solving has been one of our best investments — after training they hit the floor running, identifying several growing problems. They were able to gain an understanding of how the problems worked and, through engineering, come up with irreversible corrective actions. Their efforts have saved us money and improved the environment simultaneously,” Phil Brooks, GM statistical engineering master, said.

The statistical engineering project initiated by GM’s chemical management services provider was based on the problem statement: “Find and eliminate the root cause of contamination in the cooling water system causing downtime in Metal Assembly.”

By following statistical engineering methodology, the chemical management services provider identified what the contamination actually was, where it was coming from, and how to stop it.

The problem had to do with heat exchangers (see Figure 5) on highpressure hydraulic systems — not the units themselves, but rather with the plant’s start-up procedure.

“Using the statistical engineering process, the chemical manager was able to prove where and how oil was contaminating the plant’s cooling water. We had previously suspected the heat exchangers, but our conventional testing methods were unable to detect the leaks,” Steve Andreen, manufacturing engineering director for General Motors, said.

Once the contamination was stopped, the chemical management services provider began the process of cleaning out all of the residual contamination left in the cooling water system.

The effects were dramatic and nearly instantaneous.

Oil usage in the suspect systems decreased (see Figure 6), reducing the plant’s overall oil consumption. Metal Assembly no longer experienced blown cables or clogged water lines, greatly reducing production downtime and maintenance costs.

Pipe-fitters no longer needed to drain sections of the cooling water system on overtime. No longer were totes of black, foul-smelling water being sent to the plant’s wastewater treatment building for disposal, and no longer was the plant’s utility manager required to add large amounts of corrosion preventing chemicals to the cooling water system in order to maintain the required levels. The plant’s water usage decreased, as did the amount of water the plant sent to the city for treatment.

Oil usage decreased in suspect systems. Overall oil levels in the cooling water system dropped.

The financial benefits of this project amounted to more than $800,000 annually.

In addition, significant environmental and personnel benefits were realized through reductions in chemical use, waste, overtime, downtime, and odor.

“The partnership between GM and Quaker here at Grand Rapids has taken the chemicals management paradigm to a whole new level. The program is producing significant measurable benefits, not only to the bottom line, but also to GM’s ongoing commitment to its environmental principles, as well,” Scott Murto, senior environmental engineer for General Motors, said.

Partnering with an expert to manage your industrial chemicals can deliver significant benefits, both in terms of hard cost savings and improved efficiencies. Chemical management services are a growing trend that has not only penetrated the automotive and auto supply markets, but has also proven successful in nine other industries spanning from aerospace to electronics to the pharmaceutical sector.

The Chemical Strategies Partnership is a non-profit research, education and consulting organization which seeks to reduce chemical use, waste, risks, and cost through the transformation of the chemical supply chain by redefining the way chemicals are used and sold. For more information, visit

The Authors of this Article
Laura Wolfson is the program manager at Chemical Strategies Partnership and the chemical management services forum. She manages industry research and outreach as well as consulting project planning and analysis. Wolfson also coordinates Chemical Strategies Partnership’s annual workshop and other communication activities.'

Phil Brooks has been with General Motors for thirty-five years and is currently the plant master statistical engineer at the Grand Rapids Metal Fabricating Plant. In this role, Brooks works on a wide variety of problems for the company.'

Amy Johnson is a site engineer for Quaker Chemical Corporation, currently assigned to the GM Grand Rapids Metal Fabricating Plant. In this role her main responsibilities are maintaining all metalworking fluids throughout the plant, tracking and monitoring oil usage, analysis of lubricating oils, and cost savings projects.

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