General Motors craftsmen take pride in new vehicles

Bob Shuman, 52, chairman of the 2014 North American International Auto Show, celebrating its 25th anniversary, pictured at the 2013 NAIAS. A third-generation auto dealer, he is president of Shuman Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Walled Lake. (The Oakland Press)

The auto show isn’t just about new cars. It is also about pride.

“We make dreams come true,” said Matt Grubba, 55, who has worked for General Motors ever since graduating from Lamphere High School in Madison Heights 28 years ago and is one of the 400 highly skilled craftsman that assemble GM’s very latest vehicles for the company’s engineers and designers.

“I tell people ‘wait until the auto show. Just wait. You’re going to see something that’s going to blow you away,‘” said Grubba, who works in the design building at the GM Technical Center in Warren, where even GM employees have to cover the lens on the camera inside their personal smartphones as the sketches of the company’s designers take shape.

“I like to tell people I work in a dream factory. Designers and engineers come up with great ideas and we as a team try and makes those dreams come true,” said Grubba, a wood model maker by trade. “We turn them into hard parts,” he said. “When you go to the auto show, what you see exists because of what we do, he said.

Jeff Kilmer, 54, a pattern maker, who grew up in Clawson and has worked for GM for 24 years, noted the work is exacting. It took five days to finish the steering wheel for the Elmiraj Concept vehicle, which Cadillac unveiled last summer at Pebble Beach in California, but was hand built in Warren.

The concept for the Elmiraj came from GM’s Advanced Design Studio in southern California and offered a new vision for luxury at top of Cadillac’s expanding range. It had to look just right to fit the image that Cadillac was trying to project, noted Kilmer, who added he believes GM’s vehicles are getting better in every way.

“Just look at the products we’re putting out,” said Kilmer.

“Everyone working on a new car wants it do come out right. “We have pride in what we do. Everyone in here wants to do the best they can do,” added Kilmer, an expert in soft trim who notes every hole in the leather that wraps the steering wheel of a show car is done by hand at GM. The same goes for the stitching that holds together the seat covers and other trim pieces that go into a concept vehicle, Kilmer added.

“We take the math data (from the engineers) and we make a pattern of the seat. Then we go from a frame to a finished seat. It’s almost like building a puzzle,” said Kilmer, who worked in small trim shops before he was hired at GM 24 years ago.

The craftsmen who work in the design center also have to be flexible, noted Beth Anne Hall, 49, a pattern maker, who has spent 29 years at GM, including the last three at the design center. Unlike her previous job at GM’s Grand Rapids metal fabricating plant, where everything was done to a precise blueprint, the work in process is more fluid.

Pieces are finished by a team of craftsmen, then discarded because they don’t look just right, she said, as she shows off a visor made of Mylar that has been completely fashioned by hand to the correct proportions.

“Everything is temporary,” Hall noted. “The designer will come and say oh, maybe we should do it a different way,” she said “You really have to be adaptable. You know there are going to be changes. But whatever you’re doing, they’re not making changes for the sake of making,” said Hall, who noted she particularly enjoys working on the “quarters,” which are a full-scale mock-up of a given interior design with the seat in place and with all the trim in place.

The objective of the effort is to give both designers and craftsman an opportunity to visualize what the specific elements of the design look like in place.

“There is so much detail you might build three or four of them to see what they look like. The average person would come in and think we chopped out a car,” Grubb said.

Designers, engineers and the craftsmen all make extensive use of the latest in computer technology, but it is still important to see the final piece in three dimensions, said Hall, who signed up for a United Auto Workers apprenticeship as a pattern-maker after working as a summer employee at the GM plant in Grand Rapids. She also attends Grand Rapids Community College.

“Working here at the tech center is a world of its own,” Hall said. “It’s all about appearance and illusion,” she said.

“At one point, all the parts go together in a rough form,” added Kilmer. “But the craftsmen have to be able to visualize what it will be like when it is complete,” he added. “You get a lot of challenges. We’re all craftsmen. We want things to be just right,” Kilmer said.

Hall also noted the craftsmen working in design have diverse backgrounds.

“We come from all over. Our supervision is very knowledgeable, as they’re not just managing people. They actually have the knowledge and background,” she said.

Consequently, the many of the traditional barriers between hourly and salaried employees inside GM don’t exist inside design, she said.

Grubba said the designers and engineers working with the craftsmen at the Tech Center are more are quite willing to accept suggestions.

“We all talk. There may be times when we think we’ve got a better way of doing it,” he said.

“A lot of (the designers and engineers) are younger than us and they’re not familiar with what the trades can do. Our experience can help them,” he said.

“There has to be a lot of coordination and teamwork,” Grubba said. “It’s a good process,” he said.

“We want General Motors to be noted for craftsmanship. It’s nice to get special projects to get projects like this to show people what we can do. We don’t just do mass-produced cars,” he said.

Ed Welburn, the senior executive responsible for all of GM’s vehicle designs, said the sense of teamwork and the skill of the craftsmen are all part of the unique culture at GM Design.

“I love going in there. Sometimes, I’ll start my day in there,” added Welburn, who is known to sit down and have coffee with the employees.

Dave Bolognino, director of GM design fabrication operations, who started his career at GM in the mid-1980s as an experimental vehicle assembler at the Milford Proving Grounds, said his unit consists of 400 unionized craft workers. “We can make every single part for a car within these four walls, except for the glass and the rubber,” he said.

“We build about 75 percent of the company’s show properties. We also do a majority of the corporations pace cars,” he said. “We give them a special paint job and put on the light bars,” added Bolognino, who noted the craftsmanship of his group showed up on new 2015 Escalade, which will be on display in Cobo Center.

In fact, the role of the design studio’s skilled workers was highlighted in a series of portraits and a film highlighting the Escalade design process, which was done for Cadillac by Autumn de Wilde, an indie rock photographer and director.

“I immerse myself in the world of my subjects,” de Wilde said. “I am searching for those iconic portraits that make you wish you were there. I am always searching,” she said.