A Drive to GM's Upstate Engine Factory

An Escalade Meets Its Maker in Tonawanda, NY

August 19, 2015 Cars By Photo by Henry Phillips
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“Without us, you’d just have a nice ornament for your lawn,” Mary Ann Brown, Plant Communications Manager, tells me as we stand outside GM’s Tonawanda Engine plant, a 2015 Cadillac Escalade ($72,970) in the circle drive in front of us. It’s noon, and the sun’s high above Tonawanda, a small town adjacent Buffalo, NY. The Escalade beats gnomes and flamingos as lawn ornaments go, but this 5,845-pound piece of glistening lawn candy belongs on the road.

I’d driven the Escalade from New York City — a home where most see these beasts as high-end livery shuttles — up to Saratoga Springs, NY — an upper-class resort town town befitting an Escalade audience — and then on to Tonawanda. Eight hours on the road may seem like an exaggerated model of the Sunday drive, but it never felt it inside the cabin. The fourth-gen Escalade carries on the model’s 16-year tradition with supreme luxury. Front seats get both internal heating and cooling; premium kona wood and jet-black accents compliment the sleek cabin; GM’s CUE touchscreen is intuitive and responsive, and the OnStar wi-fi outperforms most hardline Internet connections, even in rural upstate New York; inlaid, triple-sealed doors and acoustic-laminate glass reduces exterior noise and fosters a tranquil cabin; and a Magnetic Ride control reads the road and adapts body motion in milliseconds.

But that was all fluff. The purpose of taking this pearly-white NYC-condo-sized road warrior to upstate is to see what sits under the hood.

Tonawanda builds GM engines. Their factory motto is “We make ’em go.” The 6.2-liter V8 that powers the Escalade is built in the 1-million-square-foot building behind me, and Frank DiBernardo, Manager-Controls Engineering, is about to walk me through the line.

The Tonawanda factory is 77 years old. It doesn’t look it; when GM filed for bankruptcy in June of 2009, the factory was reassessed, found viable and given a facelift. After being stripped down completely, the factory’s walls were opened up, a new concrete floor laid, new equipment brought in, and production ramped up. 1,200 people were hired, and GM spent $4 million training new employees to work with the new equipment and to new standards of precision. Today, the factory runs 24 hours a day, Monday through Friday and on Saturdays. When combined with the Rochester and Lockport factories, GM employs 4,000 people in NY state. Its pillars of operation are safety + people + quality + responsiveness + cost. It makes around 540 engines a shift, 1,600 engines a day.

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DiBernardo is a large man with a goatee, a hairline losing ground, and a slight belly that protrudes from a black GM polo shirt. He wears Wrangler jeans and Asics sneakers. He takes pride in how his engines are made, and he knows the process forward and back. He begins with RFI-IDs — data bolts — that get locked into each engine before it starts down the line. These are new to the revamped factory, and a point of pride. The bolts are identifiers, and they make the engine’s progress traceable at each step of the line.

Where that final engine goes is a lawn ornament that moves. And the Escalade really moves.

In engine-building, precision and traceability are the name of the game. A Zeiss machine that costs half a million dollars, made by the German industrial metrology company, can check component tolerances to less than 10 microns. Tonawanda uses electric, rather than pneumatic, guns, because it’s easier to finely tune the torque. Each Tonawanda engine receives a helium air test — a first in any GM factory — to check for leaks (helium atoms are smaller than oxygen, so the testing is more precise).

“We’ve caught a human hair in [an engine],” DiBernardo says. If such an intruder is found, the engine is “kicked out”, heads back to the last station, gets fiddled with, fixed, and then starts the last phase over (if a problem persists, the engine leaves the line completely and goes into a separate area for more serious inspection). In a cold test of an assembled engine, a machine revs the engine up to to 2,500 rpm and checks 2,500 data points. The sound of that on the factory floor, even without combustion happening, is like a muted version of the V8 roar drivers get from depressing the pedal. Pistons in cylinders are a harmonious roar.

Every factory shift, DiBernardo says, something is intentionally screwed up, a test of the testing system. A defective “artifact engine” runs through the line, to ensure that the error sensors sense its problems (in short, it takes a defective engine to find if the sensors are defective). DiBernardo is proud of his robots as some are proud of their children. Tonawanda was the first GM factory to receive a Comau Smart Cell, an enclosed robot that can do multiple tasks in a row — in this case, assembling cylinder heads. This robot reduces footprint (no need for multiple robots) and increases efficiency (cuts down on movement, relocation timing). To watch it work is like observing a finely trained gymnast, nailing each point of a routine.

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As a GM engine progresses down the line, gets built up, checked, more built up, re-checked, and then moves onward, that RFI-ID bolt DiBernardo introduced at the start of the line keeps tabs on progress. It registers as the engine passes tests, and it helps sync with images taken of the progress (for heads alone, 96 images are taken — there are five massive servers on the floor to keep all this data). The only time it’s taken off, DiBernardo tells me, is during the intense testing of the cranks. “We tried,” DiBernardo says. “But they kept falling off.” The RFI-IDs are reinstalled once the engine passes the test, and then they don’t come off until the engine is ready to ship. At that point, the engine heads for an external hot test and then to Arlington, TX, where it’s assembled into the rest of the Cadillac Escalade body.

Under the Hood

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Engine: 6.2-Liter V8
Transmission: Eight-Speed Tiptronic
Horsepower: 420
Torque: 460 lb-ft
Drive System: 4WD
0-60 mph: 5.9 seconds
Towing Capacity: 8,000 pounds
MSRP: $72,970 (base) / $90,355 (as tested)

Where that final engine goes is that massive lawn ornament that moves. And the Escalade really moves. In two days of driving, navigating the white beast (paint color: “White Diamond”) 880 miles, I pushed the 420 horsepower engine to quick acceleration and long highway strolls. Over the two days, the variable valve engine averaged 19 mpg. On onramps, it growled with a signature V8 baritone roar. The gas pedal never felt lacking for power, despite the Escalade’s formidable size.

At first thought, the $90,355 (as tested) price tag is hard to justify. For similar prices, you can lose some size and get some illustrious foreign sheet metal — a Porsche Cayenne or Range Rover. But by the time I’d driven up to Tonawanda and then returned to NYC — after two days and 15 hours behind the wheel — the value of the Escalade had become obvious. For starters, this American-made tank hauls plenty of human cargo, while still hauling the mail at each pedal depression (and, with a max towing capacity of 8,000 pounds — for 4WD — can haul a lot more). With a heavy lead foot, it’s a hell of a powerhouse to drive. And in the cabin, it’s an entirely premium vehicle. While not focusing on the restrained refinement of some high-end competitors, it delivers American luxury at its finest: practical, lush, large luxury that works (case in point: there’s five USB ports, five 12-volt outlets, and a 110-volt outlet). And, under the hood is one of America’s more compelling engineering marvels. The Tonawanda-made 6.2L V8 is the capstone of the Cadillac’s flagship SUV, and the factory outside Buffalo, NY, makes one mean engine for one mean SUV.

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