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Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Bad Old Days: Chrysler Mack Stamping

I often wonder how many people read this blog. I was thus heartened by a substantive comment on my previous post on Mack Stamping in the City of Detroit. Let me add a bit on the bad old days.

...Quality was a management issue...

In 1973 I was working on a rail line [cross-member = engine cradle?] when the die on one of the old, old flywheel presses shifted, in the first machine on the line. The operator noticed it, called the foreman, and they tried hitting a piece. Bent, as they expected. We then ran it through the rest of the machines. The inspector came over, and threw it down in disgust, because not only was it bent, but the bolt holes were out of true. No way to fix. Repairing would require pulling a millwright from some other emergency; the plants were running 24/7 so there was no downtime for maintenance.

[I'm leaving out the colorful language and gestures, talking – screaming! – was a challenge given the high ambient noise levels, particularly when you were near the smaller punch presses.]

We quickly had the general foreman there, and the top inspector. So what happened? We worked the full shift making scrap. Only the plant manager and the #2 had the authority to shut down a line, and they were out for meetings at some other facility. The priority was indeed to "make production" and for that purpose bad parts counted, not just good.

We worked the full shift making scrap.

There's a tale of the CEO of the late 1970s, pre-Iacocca, an accountant by background, visiting Jefferson Assembly to see rows of vehicles parked outside with their hoods up. He asked why, and was told that they had problems, popping the hood made sure everyone knew not to ship them. He went down one row, slamming the hoods down, came back the next row doing the same, and left the plant without another word: his bonus depended on the number of cars shipped (equivalent to gross revenue, because at that point dealers had to pay for them). Warranty chargebacks weren't factored in.

This is from a UAW newsletter that someone from the MIT Intl Motor Vehicle Program shared with me – a manufacturing guy, not a union person.

Technology and not just management make stamping different today. Last week I was at a conference in Pittsburgh – the Natl Assoc of Japan America Societies, not an auto industry function – and there were several steel guys there, including the top sales person from US Steel. We chatted a bit, including about the changes in the industry; sheet steel is now a high tech product, qualitatively different from that available 20 years ago, not to mention 40 years ago. Each car company has their own specifications – the steel used in "Class A" (painted surface) stampings is not a commodity – and there may be multiple layers developed through very precise pickling and heat treating.

In my time at Mack Stamping there were constant problems with dies, as above. But bad steel was also an issue, splits and buckling and all that, not necessarily in the highest stress points. As you'll recall, there were also finishing guys at the end of each line for pieces that would be painted, doing their best to polish up these steel defects. My recollection is that some lines also had 7 presses, because you couldn't do deep draws all at one shot, the steel wasn't up to it. I've been past modern stamping operations, and my sense is that there are only two shots (though I've not seen a big vehicle roof to do a true comparison).

And then there are the presses, new electroservo ones reputedly so quiet you can carry on a normal conversation. I've been next to hydraulic transfer presses, one machine doing multiple "hits" rather than a long row, clean and comparatively quiet. Long gone are the days (thankfully!) of flywheel presses, where a sticky clutch could cause a double-strike and cost you a finger or hand. Ditto the old hydraulic presses that while safer and quieter sprayed a constant mist of oil, so that by the end of the shift the shoulders of shirts were saturated and (with my longer hair of that era) requiring 3 shampoos once I got home.

Quality was a management issue, not a worker issue. When we were given free rein, my observation was that workers preferred turning out good parts and did so. (A small group of us spent time in another plant making parts that somehow hadn't been scheduled, taking over presses in a tool-and-die shop down the road.)

No one thought they were good old days. It was still very physical in the 1970s. More, it was psychologically exhausting: it's hard to work day after day when it's very clear that you are not allowed to do a good job. Anyone strolling through the plant could smell the pot (and infer the alcohol) that helped all too many get through the day. It was easy to conclude that workers were the problem. It wasn't; management was.

I did ask those around me if Chrysler, or Mack Stamping, was particularly bad. Enough had worked in Ford and GM plants to assure me that the others were little different.