For this blog post I decided to interview my uncle, Frank Keil who has spent 35 years at General Motors as a Manufacturing Engineer. He graduated from General Motors Institute (Kettering University) with a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering and went right to work at GM in Plant Engineering as a mechanical design engineer and designed many mechanical systems for manufacturing at the Buick Motor Division in Flint Michigan. He also spent time as a General supervisor of Plant Construction, Project Manager, Engineering Group Manager, and as a product Integration Engineering Manager. Currently, he is employed by Derways Automobile Company, in Cherkessk, Russia.
He describes Derways Automobile Company as a “CKD” or a Complete Knock Down builder. This means that they build vehicles on a contract basis for other companies. They receive the components for the vehicles as sets in large sea containers after they are manufactured in the particular company’s country. Derways then welds the body structures, paints the bodies, and completes the vehicles in their assembly center in Cherkessk. This allows the contracted companies to save on increased shipping densities, a reduction of finished vehicle shipping damage, and a reduction of import tariffs.
Before working at Derways, my uncle had the opportunity to work overseas in Korea and Germany for General Motors. He spent the last two years of his time with GM working on the design, development, and launch of the “J300” program, which is now built in the US as the Chevy Cruze and Chevy Volt. Their goal was to “launch a global vehicle platform with globally competitive quality standards and shortest factory downtime that had yet been executed in that region to date.” He describes the people he worked with while overseas as intelligent, dedicated and relentless. While there he regularly worked 12 hours a day, often 14, and sometimes even 16-18 hours. One of the most interesting parts of his time abroad was the social dynamic of working with both German and Korean people at once. He felt that both cultures had long-standing traditions and were very set in their ways, leading to difficulty compromising. He also discussed how the three-way language differences created challenges in terms of engineering design concepts and proposals saying, “We used to spend hours drawing sketches and pictures to discuss ideas we couldn’t convey in words even with the help of translators. We also spent hours trying to agree on a common approach to a problem as culturally the Koreans could not tell their superiors that “sir, you do not understand this situation fully.” He thought it was interesting to note that the Germans took all manager’s directions as a marching order while the American engineers openly questioned everything. All three cultures pulled their strengths together though to create a very rewarding experience.
After reading Cars and Culture I was also interested in a real life view of how the auto industry has changed over the years. My uncle described the complete globalization of the industry as one of the most important changes. All major companies have manufacturing and sales capabilities all over the world. He also discussed how “the complete adoption of statistical process control, systematic reduction of waste and what the world now refers to as “lean manufacturing” has changed the industry and gives all the credit to Dr. Edward Deming and his work in Japan after World War II for that.
Finally when asked what his favorite part of working in the automotive industry was he responded that it was without a doubt, the people that he was able to meet and work with. He explained that “all companies, world-wide, now have access to the same systems, equipment and technology. The real difference between the mediocre and the best is the caliber and commitment of the people working there.” He told me that he has been blessed to work with a great group of individuals throughout his entire career, all across the globe.