Latest manufacturing technologies drive production at GM’s updated Arlington Assembly plant

A 1.6-million-square-foot expansion of General Motors’ Arlington Assembly facility is designed to improve production-efficiency and build-quality of the all-new 2021 Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban

1.6-million-square-foot expansion incorporates the latest manufacturing-efficiency and quality-control technologies

A 1.6-million-square-foot expansion of General Motors’ Arlington Assembly facility is designed to improve production-efficiency and build-quality of the all-new 2021 Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban.

The previously announced investment of more than $1.4 billion for the plant includes a new, 1-million-square-foot body shop and a 600,000-square-foot expansion of the paint shop, along with new, high-precision camera- and laser-based inspection systems that offer more sophisticated quality checks for the segment-leading SUVs.

“Everything we do at Arlington Assembly is focused on building better vehicles for our customers,” said Bill Kulhanek, plant executive director at Arlington Assembly. “This strategic expansion brings the latest in manufacturing and inspection technologies, while adding procedures designed to improve the quality and durability of the Tahoe and Suburban.”

The Arlington investment also accommodates fundamental changes in the all-new vehicles’ design, including:

  • A stronger body architecture with an integrated front end
  • An all-new, available panoramic sunroof
  • A new underbody structure designed for the Tahoe and Suburban’s independent rear suspension, which is the foundation for a roomier third row, improved ride and handling and greater cargo capacity
  • The latest digital vehicle platform that supports more advanced safety features, the capability for over-the-air updates and future technology add-ons
  • New underbody sealing designed to increase the vehicles’ long-term durability
  • A new electro-hydraulic brake system that replaces the previous conventional braking system, requiring new installation procedures
  • Standard LED headlamps that require a new, automated alignment procedure.

“More than the physical changes, the Arlington upgrades increase assembly flexibility in the plant, allowing for more model and trim variations,” Kulhanek said. “That means more choices for customers. In fact, the trim range for Tahoe and Suburban expands to six, with distinct designs and features on each.”

The Arlington plant upgrades are part of GM’s $5 billion investment in U.S. production of new, full-size pickups and SUVs. GM previously invested in enhancements at Fort Wayne Assembly to support production of the 2019 Chevrolet Silverado 1500; and at Flint Assembly, ahead of the 2020 Chevrolet Silverado HD’s launch.

Body shop

Arlington’s all-new, 1-million-square-foot body shop comprises the largest phase of the plant’s expansion and upgrades. GM uses the latest in assembly and quality-assurance technologies to assemble the Tahoe and Suburban bodies with exceptional precision. New features include:

  • All-new robots — 1,450 of them — including the latest six-axis robotic systems, that nearly double the number from the previous body shop, to optimize efficiency and quality
  • Automated vision-system-based dimensional and parts placement stations that use cameras and lasers to more accurately locate body components for assembly and ensure dimensional accuracy prior to welding for proper gaps and flushness
  • Non-contact inspection systems that accommodate temperature fluctuations and other variables in the plant, improving consistency and accuracy
  • Cameras and laser scanners to locate points in body panels that must be pierced for fasteners, contributing to more precise panel alignment during assembly
  • A laser-based quality audit system that uses robot-mounted Leica scanners to quickly produce color maps of assembled bodies to ensure dimensional accuracy

The body shop’s upgraded systems support the SUVs’ new body structure, which features an integrated front-end assembly that is welded to the rest of the body, rather than bolted on later in the assembly process. This improves the visual quality with improved flushness of the front-end body panels with the rest of the body.

“The new body shop is ground zero for the quality built into the new SUVs,” said Mike Stevens, launch manager for Tahoe and Suburban. “It’s a stronger, more precise foundation on which the vehicles are assembled. With the all-new inspection technologies incorporated, we’ve taken quality control to an even higher level.”

Stamping operations

Revamped in 2013 as part of a $200 million investment, Arlington Assembly has one of the most efficient, contiguous stamping operations in the industry, accommodating steel and aluminum components (the new SUVs feature lightweight aluminum doors, hood and lift gate panels), along with the capability of high-speed die changes to accommodate greater model variation.

In fact, die changes such as changing between the Tahoe’s roof panel and the longer Suburban roof panel, or changing from door outer panels to the lift gate panel can be made in a matter of minutes, compared to the hours it can take in other facilities. Enormous overhead cranes move the dies, which can weigh up to 60,000 pounds each, in and out of place. Up to five die sets are used for each body panel.

A five-step robotic process is used to form the panels and pierce necessary holes. As with the new body shop, a camera-based inspection system helps ensure dimensional accuracy and supports faster, more accurate parts tracking.

The flexibility of the stamping operations, particularly with the high-speed die changes, allows the plant to produce a greater number of components on-site.

Paint shop

After leaving the body shop, the bare body assemblies are sent through the upgraded paint shop, which benefited from a 600,000-square-foot addition. It employs many new procedures and revised processes, including:

  • A new “thin film” pretreatment process is used to prep the steel and aluminum bodywork to accept paint. It’s a more environmentally-friendly process than the previous method, which used more caustic material to etch the metal.
  • After the thin film process, the bodies are rinsed before being immersed in another tank for electro-deposition coating, commonly called Elpo or E-dip, which helps seal the metal for corrosion protection.
  • The bodies move next to the underbody sealing station, which uses robots to precisely and consistently apply liquid material to the seams and body-panel overlaps on the bottom of the body assembly. This new procedure is designed to enhance corrosion resistance.
  • A more environmentally-friendly waterborne top-coat system replaces the solvent-based materials previously used in the paint shop. It also requires less time and less material than solvent-based paints.
  • Vision-system cameras are used to verify various color and paint finish-quality characteristics.

The new and revised features within the paint shop complement additional improvements made in recent years; and because the front fenders and hood are now painted in line with the rest of the body, the integrated front-end assembly has a smoother overall appearance.

“We are now able to perform a single, continuous paint application across the body,” said Benito Garcia, paint shop project lead. “The more consistent color spray-out creates a more consistent finish, from front to rear. It’s a big win for the paint-finish quality of the new Tahoe and Suburban.”

Arlington Assembly’s enhancements are also supported by a new, nearby supplier park that includes two industrial manufacturing and warehouse facilities, enabling reduced transportation costs and quicker turnaround for parts used to build the vehicles.

The 2021 Chevrolet Tahoe and Suburban will go on sale in mid-2020.

Arlington Assembly at a Glance

  • Opened in 1954
  • Employs approximately 4,800 hourly and salaried personnel
  • 1-million-square-foot expansion brings the overall floorplan to 5.75 million square feet
  • Wind energy supplies power to the plant, earning it a spot on the National Top 100 list of largest green power users

SOURCE: General Motors

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