Today, General Motors’ Lordstown assembly plant is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Since it opened in the spring of 1966, the 6-million-square-foot facility near Warren, OH, has built more than 15 million vehicles (the first car off the line was a Chevy Impala sedan).

General Motors recently pumped $50 million into the factory to produce the next-generation Chevy Cruze sedan. In fact, since 2009, GM has invested $250 million in the Lordstown plant, including a state-of-the-art solar farm containing more than 8,000 solar panels.

Although the facility appears to have a bright future, it also has a checkered past.

A few years after the plant opened, GM spent more than $75 million retooling the assembly line to produce the new Chevy Vega. The subcompact sedan was aimed at imports, which were slowly trickling into the United States.

When it reopened in 1970, Lordstown was touted as the most automated automotive plant in the world. Thanks to computer-controlled automation, it boasted the fastest assembly lines in the auto industry. The new factory could produce more than 100 vehicles per hour vs. 55 to 60 cars at other auto plants.

More than 90 percent of body welding operations were automated vs. 20 percent to 40 percent at traditional auto plants. The state-of-the-art Lordstown plant featured 75 automatic welding devices, including 26 five-axis Unimate robots that each performed about 20 spot welds.

“Each can move a welding tool through a predetermined series of motions to provide weld accuracy within 1/16 inch,” proclaimed an article in the October 1970 issue of ASSEMBLY magazine. “Each Unimate memorizes the exact ‘point-in-space’ location for each weld position. On command, it accurately repeats the pattern of tool movements and produces 2,000 welds per hour.”

Engineers also harnessed that latest information technology to simplify assembly line operations for greater efficiency and accuracy. A computerized system was used to balance workloads along the lines that built the innovative Vega subcompact.

“The system allows individual operators enough time to do a job correctly, which minimizes line disruptions and out-of-station repairs,” reported ASSEMBLY. “When options or model mixes change, the computer can immediately rebalance the line for the new conditions.”

Simulation was used extensively to optimize assembly operations. Critical systems and major subassemblies were assembled thousands of times in a computer through the use of mathematical models. Dimensional tolerances, fixturing and assembly sequence were predicted for a large number of units before a single vehicle was actually built at Lordstown.

Manufacturing engineers focused on two main objectives: make the task of the operator easier and simplify the approach to quality control. The “little car that does everything well” used 43 percent fewer body parts than the full-size Impala. For instance, the Vega used only 1,231 individual pieces vs. 3,500 for the Impala.

To meet cost objectives, four different models of the Vega 2300—a hatchback, a wagon, a two-door sedan and a panel van—were built on the same assembly line. All four bodies shared the same hood, bolt-on fenders, engine compartment and front-end panels to minimize both parts and variables in assembly operations.

“Fewer parts mean fewer assembly operations, less chance for assembly errors and a potentially higher online quality level, all without sacrificing body strength and passenger safety,” explained ASSEMBLY. “Fewer parts require fewer joints, fewer seals and reduce the possibility of water leaks.”

While automation efforts were hailed as a success at Lordstown, the plant quickly became a hotbed of labor unrest. Multiple work stoppages culminated in a bitter strike in the early 1970s that attracted national attention. It was a pivotal chapter in the age-old man vs. machine debate.

Today, Lordstown is one of GM’s oldest and most productive assembly plants. It’s nice to see that this factory has survived its tumultuous past and is thriving in the 21st century.