Commercial-scale automotive factories are extremely complex and intriguing. In almost twenty years of being part of the automotive international landscape, I have had the uncommon privilege of being allowed to observe, engage, and from time to time even serve as a consultant in multiple manufacturing plants around the world. I don’t ever pass up the opportunity to immerse myself in the incredibly fascinating world of creating a machine of purpose that began as a unified thought. Keep in mind though that wholly presenting your manufacturing plant to the public may sound like an exercise of celebration and confidence, even hubris, but it conversely can also easily expose vulnerabilities at any stage of the process.
In the past only the most important or critical individuals outside of the organization would be allowed behind the scenes. And usually manufacturers would begin opening their doors to public scrutiny only after fully establishing themselves over considerable time, approximately after between 12 to 15 years of production. So, when I got invited by the GAC Motors domestic exclusive distributor, Legado Motors, Inc., to join a Philippine media contingent over several days in Guangzhou, China, I had to go. After reviewing the outstanding GS8 7-seater premium crossover, the very comfortable GM8 7-seater premium mini-van, and the value-packed GA4 compact sedan over the past few months since they launched last November, I had to see the operations with my own eyes. Hosting the Philippine media in this momentous journey was Legado Motors, Inc. (LMI) President/CEO Wilbert Lim, Vice President of Sales/Operations Giovanni Frias, and their team; Grace dela Cruz (Market Research), Werner Santos (Graphic Design), and Shane Delgado (Digital Marketing/PR).
On our GAC Motors Philippine media immersion we visited the GAC factory (walking through the production line and test facilities), the Research and Development (R&D) center, GAC headquarters and the New GAC NE (New Energy) Factory where they produce the electric and hybrid vehicles such as the fully electric crossover GE3 530, the plug-in hybrid GS4, and the incredible plush 630-kilometer range AION-S EV sedan that accelerates from 0-100 km/h in 7.8 seconds.
LMI is owned by its chairman who is a businessman and politician, Luis “Chavit” Singson, whose business empire ranges from real estate, public transport with the hugely successful Partas Bus company since 1991 (formerly managed by Wilbert from inception), construction, retail, mining, and online entertainment under the LCS Group of Companies. The famous strong man has a very keen eye for talent, the most celebrated being Manny Pacquiao, and has been renown for his generosity. In inner circles in society, former Ilocos Sur Governor and now current mayor of Narvacan, “Chavit” has been described as a king-maker. Mayor Singson is very committed to the GAC brand, so much so that the Portuguese/Spanish derived company name, Legado, is yet another symbol of what he intends to do, leave a lasting, successful, and thriving legacy to his family and our countrymen.
Keep in mind that GAC is the lone Chinese automotive company that has done the unprecedented by building a strong enough brand and product line to be able to enter the extremely competitive North American market which it is still committed to do between 2020 and 2021 to also supposedly help rescue their business partner FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles). For a quick reminder of the young but incredible background of GAC: It was founded in 2008 as the Guangzhou Automobile Motor Corporation Limited (GAC Motor) that started as a small automobile plant in Hualong Town, Guangzhou, China. Within ten years GAC Motor grew and expanded to four plants assembling vehicles in Guangzhou, Huangzhou, Yichang, and Xinjiang. The company has distinguished itself from other Chinese manufactures with strong and very successful multiple automotive partnerships and joint ventures in the past and present with Peugeot, Honda, Mitsubishi, Isuzu, Toyota, FCA (Chrysler/Jeep/FIAT/Alfa Romeo), and Hino.
If you can get past the Trumpchi model name, the battle would already be half won. I have been reminded that the Trumpchi model name is not a derivative of the current US President since it was established back in 2010 to mimic the Chinese name Chuanqi, combined with as they say in their own words; “the ‘trump’ portion was selected to signify the best or winning, while ‘chi’ is meant to signify the brand’s home of China. In fact, the “P” in the name is supposed to be read silently. According to GAC Motors General Manager Hebin Zeng, during our in-plant conference when I brought up the concern of the model name, he assured us that the company are very aware of the issue and will be dropping or changing the name for sensitive markets very soon. Special models will be designed for the US market when GAC enters to meet local environmental standards and market demands. GAC has already set up a research and development center in Silicon Valley and will be opening two additional centers in Detroit and Los Angeles supposedly to specialize in cutting-edge technology.
The most immediate impression you get when you see a GAC vehicle is that they have standout designs inside and out. The matrix LED headlights on the GS8, the play of light on the vehicle’s flanks and front grille use the team’s design language called Flying Dynamics, and contrasting interior materials with genuine wood, these are just a few highlights contributed to GAC’s Vice President and Head of Design, Zhang Fan. The more premium models have remarkable interior technologies and materials.
We had a short talk with the accomplished Zhang who worked with the Mercedes-Benz AG design team for a little over eight years. Zhang’s experience with Mercedes-Benz combined with his own talent have helped him lead his massive Research & Development team of over 4,500 strong to create genuinely handsome, well-built, comprehensive, and desirable products. During our factory tours we witnessed in real-time the additional product endurance testing conducted on each current and new model on an elaborate raised mechanical platform that simulates multiple condition road surfaces independently on all four wheels over a 20-year period to help ensure optimal build quality. They naturally have more testing facilities throughout the complex which includes a proper variable road test circuit, NVH (noise and vibration harshness) and audio system quality. So, I am not surprised that GAC Motors has received five-star ratings in China Automotive Technology and Research Center’s China-New Car Assessment Program (C-NCAP) crash tests and has ranked number 1 in the J.D. Power’s Initial Quality Study for six consecutive years from 2013 to 2018!
GAC Motor collaborates with 18 strategic core supplier partners around the world that include Bosch, Denso, Continental, Aisin, and Magna. GAC Motor runs a strict quality control system with the goal of achieving “zero defects,” covering all links in vehicle manufacturing from design, production, logistics, sales to aftersales services. They currently produce 1,000 finished vehicles in a day using incredible Kuka industrial robotics among others! It is an incredible sight to see all the machines running simultaneously in an optimized just-in-time system.
With a GFA of 40,000 m2 (Line 1: 50,000 m2), the General Assembly Workshop is 400 meters long and 100 meters wide. According to the one-time design-build principle, its design capacity is 150,000 units / year. There are 116 sets of production equipment. It is expected to reach 180,000 vehicles / year after productivity enhancement and process optimization. Its daily standard productivity is 738 vehicles with a cycle time of 74 seconds. The production lines are divided into five functional areas: electrical, interior trim, chassis, exterior trim and composite. Four car models (or even eight models in the future) can be produced on the same line. A station-centric production logistics and distribution model is used to effectively improve the efficiency of staff and lay a foundation for innovative, green, smart general assembly workshop benchmark. The Welding Workshop covers an area of 24,000 m2. Its intended capacity is 150,000 units / year. And it is expected to reach 180,000 units / year after production efficiency enhancement and process optimization. Its cycle time is 66 seconds. The GAC NE General Assembly Workshop has an area of approximately 85,000 square meters and a design production capacity of 200,000 units per year.
Despite all the accurate machinery, at the heart of production is still people, and they are authentically passionate and proud of their company, the products, and the future. I had a wonderful dialogue (our lovely interpreter Sophie had quite a workout) with GAC Motor China’s Deputy General Manager Zhan Song Guang (also known as the father of the production plant having been instrumental in its foundation and management) over dinner. You can feel the love and pride for the GAC Motor brand. They want way more than being the very best from China, they want, and can compete in the international stage! I am sincerely astonished and taken by GAC’s collective swift adaptability, engineering and energy. They have learned from all their partners and applied their own uniqueness.
GAC as a company and automobile builder represent the clearest turning point for a Chinese automobile manufacturer. The product range are handsome, well-built, have very balanced and relevant standard equipment, and perform dynamically better than most of their direct competition. Having seen the manufacturing facilities and the people, I have the confidence to say that GAC is not only world-class, they are here to thrive. Being state-owned with very deep financial resources, determination, and engineering, their successful future is guaranteed. And who wins in the end? Us consumers! We now have another very healthy source of affordable high-quality products for our Philippine market backed by a 5-year factory warranty! In fact, Legado Motors has already invested P20-million in spare parts to support consumers so customers will not be left orphaned, and this is just the beginning! More incredible GAC models are coming!