It appears that General Motors plans to pull the plug on its Saturn division. If so, the 18-year-old brand will join other nameplates that you now only find in museums or classic car shows. But, Saturn will always be associated with assembly line innovation.

It appears that General Motors Corp. (GM, Detroit) plans to pull the plug on its innovative Saturn division. If so, the 18-year-old brand will join Oldsmobile, LaSalle and Oakland. Those are all former GM nameplates that you now only see in museums or classic car shows.

ASSEMBLY chronicled the rise of Saturn in the 1980s. General Motors spent eight years and $3 billion dollars developing a new line of small cars to compete against Japanese automakers. The goal was to use “start-to-finish innovation,” such as plastic body panels, to produce a sporty family of subcompact sedans. Saturn also ushered GM into a new era of production processes, labor relations and quality management.

According to Roger Smith, GM’s controversial CEO back in the day, Saturn would be “the key to GM’s long-term competitiveness, survival and success as a domestic producer. We expect it to be a learning laboratory. We also expect that what we learn with Saturn will spread throughout GM.”

Last year, when ASSEMBLY celebrated GM’s centennial with a special supplement in its July issue, I identified four of the automaker’s most trendsetting plants. One of them was the Saturn facility in Spring Hill, TN, which was built in the late 1980s.

Production of Saturn sedans began at Spring Hill in July 1990, and the plant served as an incubator for several cutting-edge ideas. One of the most radical new concepts was the role of labor and management. As a result, the plant boasted of having the lowest absentee rate in the auto industry.

“Saturn represents a profound change in the relationship between the union and management, and an equally profound change in the way that GM manages its people,” proclaimed an article in the January 1991 issue of ASSEMBLY. Self-directed work teams, each comprised of 6 to 15 members, formed the basic building block of the Saturn manufacturing organization. Each team was empowered with the authority to take action on their decisions. They interviewed and hired new team members, developed production systems, and selected production equipment and suppliers.

The Spring Hill plant also set new standards for flexibility. Assemblers built both standard and high-performance engines on the same line, in addition to producing both manual and automatic transmissions. Instead of using traditional dedicated production equipment, 40 percent of the assembly tooling was shared between the manual and automatic transmissions in the assembly process. The plant also was an early user of DC electric and battery-powered fastening tools.

The most significant departure from conventional assembly methods at the new Saturn plant was the skillet conveyor system, which allowed operators to remain stationary while working. It was the first time that the skillet system was used in an American auto factory. The technology was adopted from GM’s Opel plant in Russelsheim, Germany.

Ironically, the Russelsheim plant also faces an uncertain future, because GM plans to get rid of Opel in addition to Hummer, Saab and Saturn. Another Opel plant in Eisenach, Germany, served as a benchmark for many of the lean production processes implemented at GM plants in the United States during the past decade.

In 2000, GM began assembling Saturns at its Wilmington, DE, plant. Today, the Spring Hill plant is still one of GM’s largest facilities, but it never came close to its original goal of expanding to produce 500,000 vehicles annually. It recently underwent an $800 million overhaul and currently assembles the Chevrolet Traverse.

I think GM missed a great opportunity to turn Saturn into its “green” brand. Maybe some savvy Chinese or Indian automaker will buy the name and make it popular once again. No matter what happens, Saturn will always be associated with assembly line innovation.