When I was working for Magna Powertrain, New Process Gear, the opportunity to work in China for six months as part of an engineer exchange program. Karen and I discussed the idea and I put an application in for the position. A couple months had gone by with no reply. One day at work another engineering manager called me into his office. He said that they were looking for someone to go to China for a special project to help HAVECO validate a transmission. It was pretty well known in the organization that I wanted to go to China and if I wanted the job, it was mine for the taking. That was Monday, Friday I was on a plane for Shanghai to go to a corporate meeting about the project. We spent a couple days in Shanghai and a couple days in HangZhou where HAVECO is located. When I got back to Syracuse, I had two weeks to get things in order and get back to HAVECO to begin my assignment.
This whole thing is kind of funny because since the day I started working for Magna, I'd said "I want to go to China" 10,000 times. I worked for a year and a half on the seal team. I tried to go to China to help evaluate a seal supplier named Zhongding. Nobody would let me go and I almost got fired for pushing it too hard. There was an article in the Magna Powertrain newsletter about living and working in China hanging on the wall of my cubicle in Syracuse. From time to time, I'd look at it and think "well, that's never going to happen." Then this assignment came up and I quit my seal team job to take it. Three weeks later, I was living in China.
HAVECO is located in the ZheJiang province, east of Shanghai in Xiaoshan. They manufacture automotive and truck transmissions. My assignment here is to help validate the Haveco T350 for GAZ in Russia. GAZ had purchased a 20% stake in Magna, so there was a vested interest from both Magna and GAZ that this project proceed smoothly. GAZ was depending on this transmission being properly validated to Chrysler standards and available for their JR41 vehicle project. The JR41 is a version of the Chrysler Sebring to be produced by GAZ for the Russian market. They had purchased all the original vehicle tooling from Chrysler and moved it to Nitzne factory.
There is a Chinese national contract person we brought in to help with quality and production issues. Raymond and I got an apartment together in HangZhou. I think it is the best place I've ever lived in and it's only $230/ month. Beer is $5 a case and dinner is around $2. The people are really friendly here and it has been a satisfying adventure both personally and professionally. I am finally getting to use the Chinese I learned in college at RIT ten years ago. It is a little rusty, but coming back to me surprisingly quickly. I'm planning a trip to the Olympics in August and would like to visit Tibet in the fall.
The factory is a sprawling complex of buildings and offices the size of a small town. It is actually quite beautiful for a factory. The land is owned by the Chinese government and HAVECO is planning to move to new location about 20km away early next year. The land here must be quite valuable, because there is a Chinese version of Disneyland is right behind the factory. We had looked at an apartment over there, but the one we found is much better. I just hope they leave the trees and shrubs that line the streets in the factory complex and just tear down the buildings. They are a mix of cherry and sycamore trees that provide shade and home for many types of bird. Right outside the factory there is a big mountain of solid granite. At some point in time a tunnel was cut through it and the entrance is right outside the front gate. At the other end is the city of Xiaoshan. It is called the HAVECO Tunnel. No ventilation and it is quite dark. I'm a little nervous riding my bike through it. There is also a part with hiking trails that go to the summit.
Raymond and I take turns making dinner. He is showing me some of the secrets of making Chinese food. The food is quite different than the standard fare found in restaurants in the US. First, and foremost, everything is fresh. For meat, that means still living or the complete carcass of something that was walking around hours ago. When you buy chicken, you get the whole chicken: including the head, feet, beak, everything. The vegetables are also fresh from the ground and are sold everywhere. We get a meal every day at work in the cafeteria. They prepare it in a large, industrial style kitchen and it is as close to home cooking as you will ever get in a cafeteria. Every day they serve us a different variety of food. I usually have to ask, did this grow, walk, crawl, slither, or swim. For example, one day we had frog. The very next day it was turtle. Both were quite good. I've eaten everything put in front of me, or at least tried it. The only thing that I didn't like was the fermented bamboo. It smells horrible.
While shopping for clothes we discovered that I'm just too big for this country. There are no clothes and definitely no shoes that fit me. It was kind of funny walking around this mall to the different shops. "do you have size 48" You would see the smile drain right out of their faces. No only 43. I'll have to be really careful with these shoes or I'll be walking around barefoot. The big supermarket and malls are located about 20 minutes away by bicycle. I knew there had to be a back way, because we have to ride along the canal and railroad for more than a kilometer, cross, then backtrack toward the stores. One time we decided to ride home a different way to find the back way to the apartment. We found this small alley that got us back to the railroad. Man, I was scared, if you can imagine that. It was pitch black and there were shady characters hovelling in doorways, eyeing us suspiciously. I kind of stick out, especially there. But, I have a pretty good sense of direction and I knew we hadn't crossed the tracks yet. We finally heard the warning bells from the railroad crossing and found it around the corner. 20 minutes to get to the store, 1 hr to get back. But now we know the shortcut -- daytime only.
There was an earthquake that happened here during my stay. I didn't feel it, but in Sichuan province where the epicenter was located, it measured 7.9 on the Richter scale. It was a huge tragic disaster for the Chinese. Some estimates were as high as 50,000 people dead or missing. The news footage showed entire towns leveled. To make matters worse, the roads were blocked by landslides. Huge boulders came down and crushed tractor trailers like tin cans. It was inspiring to see the people and the government spring into action. Prime Minister Wen Jia Bao was at the scene, in the rain, within 4 hours. He went from village to village for a week straight trying to reassure survivors, injured, and rescuers alike. Time after time, he would personally comfort victims. This is an amazingly stressful situation for the 56 year old leader. You could feel the compassion in his voice. President Hu Jin Tao also is doing the same. Literally, he is sitting in the dirt on a piece of cardboard, holding victims hands and comforting them. The rest of China cued up in lines around the block to donate money for those in need. The whole country rallied to do anything they could to abate the disaster. One particularly tragic site was a large school that collapsed with all the students inside. Hundreds of children died and there were sad reminders in the shoes and book bags mixed in with the debris. Just to put the immense nature of this earthquake would be like relocating the entire state of Wisconsin; providing food shelter and sanitation; and returning them to productive lives.
The whole thing is really unbelievable. Right now there is a problem where the landslides have created huge dams in the rivers. The valleys are really narrow with steep mountains on both sides in that area of the country. A huge lake has formed behind one of the lakes that is 800 meters deep. They are really worried about what will happen if the dam breaks. It would take out every town along the river all the way to the sea. 1,800 army troops have hiked in, each carrying 10Kg of explosives. They are going to try to blow up part of the dam to release pressure before the water gets to the top. It is very urgent and today we got torrential rains and thunderstorms. I really feel for these people and the hardships they face in the wake of the earthquake. At least the response from the government in China was immediate, unlike OUR government's response to hurricane Katrina. Just about everything in the western media about China is biased and wrong.
It is inspiring to work with these people. In the morning there is a production briefing for the assembly line workers. It reminded me of my time in the military. The workers all get in formation and the shift supervisor gives them a pep talk. This company really treats its employees pretty well. They all wear light blue shirts with the HAVECO emblem as a uniform. There is a large cafeteria where everybody eats lunch. We eat there too and the food is delicious. I can't wait for lunch every day. For the regular production workers, HAVECO provides a monthly subsidy that pays a large portion of the cost of these meals. I think it encourages camaraderie in the workers to take lunch together. When we go out to the production line, the workers are always happy to see us and answer all of our questions. They are proud of the quality of their work and it is good for them to see us out there checking. I have always said that you can get good quality products out of China. First, You have to have a well defined product. Second, they have to know you are looking.
It has been a long road to get ready for production. Think about what it takes to produce a vehicle. All of the components must come together at the right place and the right time for the assembly line workers to build an automobile. The engine, the seats (right color), the windshield, the nuts and bolts, the wheels, etc. Each of these components are produced so that they arrive at the assembly plant just in time. Within the transmission there are hundreds of components that also must be available in the right quantities and at the right time for HAVECO assembly workers to build quality transmissions for GAZ. Some components such as gears and shafts are produced in house, but things like castings, bearings, fasteners and such are produced by outside suppliers. They in turn rely on steady supply of steel, aluminum, and other raw materials.
Our responsibility in managing this project is to ensure that all of the things necessary for this logistical miracle are in place. In August, we had the Magna Quality engineer Peter Prattes here to do a Pre-PSO (production sign off) meeting and inspect the component manufacturing area, assembly line and logistical controls. He did a very thorough job. We have been using the Chrysler model to do validation testing, production line process controls, component quality inspection, etc. It is a very methodical way to ensure that each task is completed and that the entire organization is ready for production.
Lately, there has been a lot of work to install all the error proofing devices and make sure all the issues discovered during the PSO have been corrected. Peter is scheduled to return in December for the final PSO. Also, the engineering team from GAZ, Magna Steyr and New Process Gear will be here to review the validation testing, design information, and the production line. If all goes well, HAVECO will get the green light to start production immediately.
HAVECO is also planning to move to a new factory in the first quarter of 2008. The current factory is too cramped for all the operations and some are currently located in other facilities. The new factory is about 20 kilometers from the current one. It is going to have over 60,000 square meters of manufacuting space with a new, modern office building so all the divisions can share the same space. Work is already quite far along and the facility should be complete by the end of February. HAVECO will begin to move in early March 2009 and should complete the job by April.