Eye toward the future

PARMA – General Motors Parma Metal Center, in operation since 1948 and in the midst of preparations for a $14 million upgrade, produces metal parts for virtually every GM vehicle manufactured in North America, including about 50 parts used in the manufacture of the Lordstown-built Chevrolet Cruze.

And for the last six years, the man at the helm of this 2.3 million-square-foot facility near Cleveland is Warren Western Reserve High School graduate Al McLaughlin. McLaughlin, a second-generation GM employee, strolled through the plant in Parma on a recent afternoon, stopping along the way to chat with workers and United Auto Workers Local 1005 President Steve Frammartino.

Long before the start of his nearly 43-year GM career, McLaughlin had spent most of his formative years first living on Warren’s east side, attending Lincoln Elementary, and then moving to the city’s west side where he played tight end and attended Warren Western Reserve High School.

But football wasn’t his only passion in those days. Even then, McLaughlin recalled, he was always a “car guy.”

His father worked at the Lordstown stamping plant during the early years of the plant that opened in 1966. So after his 1971 high school graduation, McLaughlin said he had no doubt what he wanted to do with his life. He applied and got accepted into General Motors Institute, now known as Kettering University.

“I knew I was going to pay my own way. I didn’t have a silver spoon,” McLaughlin said, noting he got accepted into a few different GM plants, and chose Lordstown, where he worked and completed dual degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering.

Today, McLaughlin said he sees a bright future for the Parma Metal Center, which already operates in a unique situation because it is a free-standing fabrication plant, unlike most that are attached to an assembly operation like the one in Lordstown.

“I think the prospects here in Parma are pretty good,” McLaughlin said, noting the plant has carved out a niche and intends to grow production when it begins operation on a new progressive press, stamping out metal parts for vehicles built at 13 GM assembly plants in North America.

The plant, which last year turned out about 67 million parts, makes the high-strength steel parts that help the make GM vehicles rigid below the outer shell. It’s the outer components that are often manufactured at fab plants contiguous to assembly plants.

And as auto manufacturers move to the use of aluminum alloy materials, McLaughlin believes the Parma plant also will remain aggressive.

“It’s inevitable we are going to go to more aluminum alloys, in my opinion,” McLaughlin said. “But here it’s not going to be a problem because we are going to make sure that anything we do moving forward will be aluminum capable. It’s just the prudent thing to do. That’s something I want to push here, to be aluminum ready.”

At the same time, McLaughlin noted that steel producers will continue to improve their product as well, to remain competitive with aluminum alloy producers. In fact, the Parma plant, McLaughlin said, uses more high-strength steel than any manufacturer in North America. Nearly all of that steel, he said, is domestic.

While his knowledge of auto manufacturing runs deep, it was his interest in managing people that McLaughlin spoke about most enthusiastically on this day when production at the plant had slowed as workers enjoyed “bring your child to work day.”

“It’s engaging people in the business. It’s good for the kids, but the parents are just beaming,” McLaughlin said said of the annual program. “People are just pumped. You are a lot better off with 1,500 people working to make tomorrow better than today. It’s engagement, not just a job.”

McLaughlin continued, “We spend a lot of time to make an engaged workforce. That’s what we are doing today.”

And while hosting events like this is an expensive prospect, he sees it’s worth, largely because of the long-term workforce benefits.

“It’s nice to have a nice building, and it’s great to have great equipment, but it’s the people that make the difference,” he said.

Those people, McLaughlin said, soon will be working on a new progressive press at the plant, used for die cutting sample and production parts.

Work on the $14 million investment announced earlier this year is expected to begin in June and will take about 10 months to complete.

“They invest in the plant because we are trying to do the right things and we are competitive,” McLaughlin said.

“We have a good plant. We have a good workforce. I think we have a good future here with GM,” he said.