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The UAW-Chrysler Technology Training Center, home of the WCM Academy. Photos by Bob Erickson.
WARREN, Mich. – It’s not every day that autoworkers rave about training to improve job performance as “totally awesome,” “eye-opening” and “a one-of-a-kind experience.”
But, then again, it’s not every day that autoworkers take courses at the new World Class Manufacturing (WCM) Academy, a state-of-the-art facility jointly administered by the UAW, Chrysler Group LLC and Fiat SpA.
It's a high-tech, interactive learning laboratory where training is being redefined as a catalyst for meaningful change on the shop floor at Chrysler.
“I’m used to sitting in a classroom and listening to a lecture, but attending the academy was a pleasant surprise and a challenging experience,” said Curt Steenbeke, a UAW Local 1284 member and vehicle crash technician at the Chelsea (Mich.) Proving Grounds.
“With all the technology and interaction in the lab, you gain practical knowledge that you can’t learn anywhere but there.”
Such superlatives were the order of the day last week as Chrysler Group executives joined with the UAW and local government officials to dedicate the WCM Academy, which occupies about 25,000 square feet of the UAW-Chrysler Technology Training Center.
Each year the academy will provide more than 1,200 UAW members with an in-depth understanding of the WCM production system. Developed by Fiat, it’s design to reduce waste, increase productivity and restore dignity to workers.
WCM is the driving force behind the manufacturing transformation at Chrysler plants, and it anchors the company’s dramatic comeback from bankruptcy. The system is being gradually phased in at all manufacturing facilities with implementation jointly administered by Chrysler and the UAW.
Presiding at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the academy were Scot Garberding, Chrysler’s senior vice president of manufacturing; UAW Vice President General Holiefield, director of the union’s Chrysler Department; Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, and Warren Mayor Jim Fouts.
“People development is the cornerstone of the (production) system we are developing,” Garberding said during the dedication ceremony. “This is not the flavor-of-the-month program – it’s the only way we do business.
“The only way for us to get better is to build skills, and this is the way we build skills. We are not doing training for training’s sake.”
Garberding applauded the UAW for supporting WCM, noting “the results that have been achieved in our plants could not have been realized without the support of our UAW partners. From the leadership to the shop floor, everyone has become an advocate of WCM and understands that it is critical to maintaining Chrysler Group’s competitiveness into the future.”
Holiefield was enthusiastic in embracing WCM and the academy, which comes alive with large touch screens on the walls and iPads on table tops.
WCM gives workers 'a real voice in what happens in the workplace,' Holiefield said.
“Employees love WCM – they’ve got a real voice in what happens in the workplace,” he said. “We are transforming UAW members into the best quality manufacturing employees the dollar can buy.
“Our employees understand that WCM is the foundation of Chrysler Group’s continued success, and the WCM Academy provides the opportunity for continued growth and development.”
Holiefield added that job security is also at stake: “You can’t negotiate job security; you need to earn it and we’re doing that through WCM.”
Hackel said the new academy’s importance extends beyond Chrysler and the UAW. “This is exciting news for Macomb County, the region and the state of Michigan,” he said.
He said the academy gives new meaning to the word “Fiat,” as he used it to coin a new acronym that fit the occasion. “Does it mean First in Automotive Training?” he asked. “Well, it does now.”
From its design to its implementation, the academy combines a number of unique aspects that support WCM with a visually engaging, hands-on approach to training that fosters innovation, problem solving and a continuous improvement ethic among workers.
“Unlike the classic concept of training, training for WCM has to be focused on addressing specific needs within the manufacturing facilities,” said Massimo Risi, head of World Class Manufacturing at Chrysler. “No longer will a ‘cookie cutter’ approach drive continuous improvement.”
Training is targeted at resolving such issues as unsafe working conditions, poor product quality or bottlenecks on assembly lines.
Serving as an extension of the plants, the academy provides a dynamic, best-practice sharing opportunity unlike any previously experienced by Chrysler workers.
Material for the 14 courses currently in the curriculum was created internally with input from plants. Trainers were selected from within Chrysler based on their own hands-on, practical experience achieving WCM results in their facilities.
The unique training lab consists of learning stations organized around the 10 technical Pillars that make up WCM, such as Safety, Cost Deployment, Workplace Organization, Quality Control and People Development.
Each Pillar has a classroom color coded to coordinate with a dedicated area of the lab where hands-on training takes place. Students spend 70 percent of their time in the lab applying what they learn in the classroom.
And there’s never a dull moment during the two days that workers spend at the academy. Learning WCM principles and methodologies is fun as well as thought-provoking, giving students know-how that translates into measurable results on the job.
They can participate in games and other educational activities that take advantage of everything from 3D video technology to slot car racing and simulated door and engine assembly lines.
The 3D technology comes into play at the Immersion Theater in the safety area of the lab.
Students don 3D goggles to become fully immersed in a plant setting full of unsafe acts and conditions, thanks to the same technology used by the U.S. Department of Defense to train soldiers deployed to Afghanistan.
The video becomes a learning tool to help workers become aware of unsafe conditions, identify potential hazards and work through possible solutions.
Local 869's Shay Sulton stands in front of the engine line simulation area in the sprawling Academy lab room.
Shay Sulton, a UAW Local 869 member at the Warren Stamping Plant, gives the academy high marks after taking the Job Safety Risk Analysis course last month.
“It was a real eye-opener for me. The simulations were great – they really made things come alive,” said the ergonomics analyst. “The training put me in a better mind frame to predict risks and get to the root cause of problems. Even if you didn’t want to, you were going to learn a lot. It was that engaging.”
Local 869 member Larenda Beecham, a safety specialist at Warren Stamping, also was impressed after taking the course.
“It was totally awesome,” she said. “It was very motivating besides providing practical information that makes a big difference in the plant. By working together as one, we are bringing about change for the company and the union. And it’s all about change for the better.”
Located near the 3D Immersion Theater, the Human Motion Capture Arena employs the same technology used to create video games in an exercise designed to improve efficiency in performing job functions.
A student dresses in a special suit covered with LED sensors that capture the individual’s movements, from the largest such as walking to the slightest such as the movement of a finger. Above, a ring truss is equipped with multiple cameras that capture the movements and project them on a video display.
This exercise enables students to visualize how an operator would move to perform a given job function so they can eliminate waste by deciding how to reduce the number of movements or make them more consistent with a person’s natural movements.
The slot car track is used to demonstrate the seven steps of micro-stoppages on the line – small equipment breakdowns that can cause major losses.
The cars on the track and the track itself have been modified to “break down” while racing. A high-speed camera captures the movements, helping students see that the breakdown might be worse than what is obvious to the naked eye. In this way, operators learn to apply a disciplined process to discover the root cause of a problem.
Local 140's Craig Badder: world-class fantastic.'
Once the two days of classroom and lab sessions are completed, workers return to their home plants with an academy trainer to apply what they learned to resolve the issue being addressed.
The final step in the learning process occurs when workers return to the academy for validation of their training and to share best practices.
UAW Local 140 member Craig Badder, a team leader mentor and safety specialist at the Warren Truck Plant, is another academy participant who’s sold on the training he received there.
“In a word, it was world-class fantastic,” he said. “The use of technology was especially phenomenal compared to the way we used to be trained. When you’re done with a course at the academy, you are way more productive and better prepared to do your job. That’s what training should be all about.”