Coming full circle

Apr 13, 2007

Creating an award-winning manufacturing facility and bringing jobs to his hometown, Randy Thayer '78, came back to Lansing a fourth time to do what he loves best - work with people.

Standing at the helm of a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility with LEEDS Gold Certification and helping to keep upwards of 3,000 General Motors (GM) jobs in his hometown of Lansing, Mich., Randy Thayer admits he is living his dream job.

When he graduated from then GMI (now Kettering University) in 1978 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering-Automotive, Thayer couldn't predict the zig-zag path his career would take. But he has landed exactly where he wants to be, working with people in manufacturing as the plant manager for GM's new Lansing Delta Township plant, producer of crossover vehicles including the Saturn Outlook, GMC Acadia and Buick Enclave.

"There is probably no better job than being a plant manager and doing it in your home town," said Thayer, "manufacturing is so integrated with people." And that is important to Thayer who has been on both the engineering and manufacturing sides of GM.

"Of my 34 years with GM, I have spent two thirds of it in manufacturing and a third in other jobs," he said, "I like manufacturing because I feel a sense of accomplishment every single day."

He has accomplished a lot at the Lansing Delta Township (LDT) site. Involved from the beginning, Thayer was one of three launch team planners who began work in 2003 developing plans for the site.

"When I came back from Atlanta, I was plant manager at the Lansing Metal Center Plant, the old stamping plant," said Thayer. "The new stamping plant located on this site worked for me and then in August of 2003 I was appointed plant manager for the assembly plant here and we started breaking ground in March of 2004," he added.

"It was relatively early to have a plant manager come on board with a green field (undeveloped land) and no staff," he said. "So I started building the staff and putting the rest of the work force together. It was myself and two other superintendent level managers that were launch team planners."

At the time GM was undergoing a big transformation in the Lansing area. Old GM facilities were being closed and razed, but the Lansing GM plants had won a number of quality awards, according to Thayer, which is why he believes GM was willing to re-invest in the city. "It was a re-investment in a town that proved it could do the job," he said. "What is left in Lansing now are two assembly plants, but we're still very fortunate that both plants have been replaced with two brand new plants," said Thayer.

GM originally bought the LDT site land in 1999 and planned a different vehicle line for production there. That project sat on hold for about three years, Thayer said. "The company did go ahead and build the stamping plant, but that was the only thing out here. It went into production in April of 2003," he added. The rest of the LDT facility started construction in March of 2004, with the first vehicles rolling off the line in November of 2006.

There was a lot to accomplish between breaking ground and the first product roll out. "One of the most unique things we did," said Thayer, "was to go after LEED Gold certification." LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a program of the U.S. Green Building Council.

"We are the first assembly plant to receive the Gold Certification from LEEDS in the world," said Thayer. "Very few manufacturing facilities have even gone after LEEDS certification, it has been mainly office buildings that have received it," he added. LDT is one of 550 buildings worldwide that are LEED certified at any level, and only a third of those have earned Gold Certification.

LEED Certification is the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction, and operation of high performance green buildings. It promotes a whole-building approach to sustainability by recognizing performance in five key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality.

"It is based on a point system that looks at what the building ends up being," explained Thayer, "it also has to do with how the facility is built through all the construction phases, if recycled materials were used, how much material went to a land fill, and what the end result is, related to the environment and the building's overall energy efficiency."

"Before we even broke ground we had to decide if we were going to go after LEED certification so we could plan with the architects," Thayer said. Some LEED criteria were relatively easy, he said, and just needed to be included in the planning, while other criteria took extra investment. "Actually, most of the criteria had some amount of payback," said Thayer, "things like the roof of the entire plant being white, it cost a little extra money to do that, but the reflectivity of the roof will save energy all through the summer months."

The roof is also used to capture rainwater which is used to flush the toilets. That feature cost a little money, according to Thayer, but it has a good payback. Other features that contribute to financial savings, as well as the environment, include the landscaping and drainage system on the site.

The landscaping is all done with plants and grasses native to the area so there is no irrigation needed to support the landscaping, and the drainage system utilizes open drains as much as possible because it slows down water flow and reduces the volume of water passing to the wastewater treatment plant.

In addition, lighting and energy systems in the plant are all computer controlled. In between shifts and on breaks all the line-side lighting is reduced. "Out in the body shop we actually weld in the dark because there are no people around," said Thayer. The welding is done by robots and they do not need lights. If a robot breaks down, lighting will come on in the area of the down robot, indicating to the maintenance people there is a problem and where it is.

Working in cooperation with Lansing area school districts, Thayer and his planning team set aside 85 acres between the LDT site and Interstate 69 Highway and made a nature area. Volunteer teams helped with surveying and assessing habitat and animals to determine the impact of the facility on the immediate environment.

"We turned it into a park," said Thayer, "it's on the property, but outside the fence line so anyone can use it. We received a Habitat Council Award for that and certification for a learning partnership with local school districts that use the land for outdoor education."

Inside the plant the innovations continue including implementing GM's Global Manufacturing Systems program which utilizes job rotation. The LDT facility was designed to maximize job rotation opportunities. "We did some things with the conveyor systems to try and enable that as much as possible, such as adjustable height conveyors in all the general assembly areas," Thayer said.

"The job will come into the work station at the correct ergonomic height for the 'normal height' person, but we have switches along the line so employees can set the line height four inches higher or lower from the ergonomically set position depending on their height. That helps a lot with job rotation and absentee replacement of team members," he added.

Job rotation encourages people to work together as a team, alleviates boredom on the job and facilitates cross-training so all jobs on a team are covered in the event of illness or vacation leaves. For Thayer the real issue job rotation addresses is making everyone engaged in all jobs on the team. "When issues come up the team problem solves together and everybody has some input," he said.

During construction of the facility less construction material went into a landfill (due to careful planning of needed materials) and recycled materials were re-used. For example, cubicle partitions for the engineering and administrative areas were re-used from a facility in Pontiac, even though they were 72 inches high and the LDT planners wanted cubicle walls at hip-height to create an open office environment to aid communications.

"We had skilled trades re-work the tall cubicles and re-cover them with new fabric," said Thayer. "We saved more than $1.5 million using existing materials. A good example of saving money and getting what we wanted," he added. Recycling continues now that the facility is complete. One area of recycling is production materials, the caps on parts and dunnage (packing materials). "Our first goal is always to re-use," Thayer said, "if we can capture that material and send it back to the supplier to put on the next pipe that comes in that's great. Our second goal is to recycle it, to make it into something else, and our third goal is recycle outside the plant. There is a company on site that sorts our waste and finds new markets for the materials," he said.

And what about the long term? What happens when production of crossover vehicles stops in favor of the next automotive trend? No matter what happens in the automotive market the Lansing Delta Township plant will be prepared to accept it, according to Thayer.

"This plant was designed to be GM's most flexible plant," he said, "we were set up to be able to run multiple architectures in the body shop which is where most flexibility has to occur. The adjustable height conveyers help with future flexibility because they don't need to be moved. LDT is here for the long haul," said Thayer.

So is Thayer. Having taken GM jobs in Georgia and at multiple sites in Michigan, it's good to be home in Lansing, alongside many of the people with whom he started his career. "Not by design, the LDT site ended up with a whole bunch of people that worked together in years past coming together again," said Thayer, including his chief engineer, program manufacturing manager, assistant plant manager and general assembly area manager.

And the connections go back even farther. "I grew up with so many people in this plant. I have lots of friends here from junior high and high school."

Apparently, you CAN go home again - Randy Thayer did.

Written by Dawn Hibbard
(810) 762-9865
dhibbard@kettering.edu