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Chrysler builds cars the Fiat way

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Chrysler builds cars the Fiat way

Jefferson North plant refurbished for new Jeep Grand Cherokee

Alisa Priddle / The Detroit News

Detroit -- There's a new look, commitment and enthusiasm at a refurbished Jeep plant in Detroit and it is a model being replicated across Chrysler Group LLC's 28 North American plants.

Chrysler has spent $700 million on the new Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Jefferson North assembly plant where it is being built. But the investment represents more than the traditional tooling and promises that accompany the launch of a next-generation vehicle.

Cars are now being built the Fiat SpA way. After Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy June 10 and formed a partnership with Fiat, CEO Sergio Marchionne ordered all Chrysler plants to adopt Fiat's World Class Manufacturing system, designed to improve quality and productivity by eliminating waste and bottlenecks.

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Equally important: creating a culture of worker involvement.

The Fiat system is a form of lean manufacturing -- a concept introduced by Toyota Motor Corp. Variants have been adopted by automakers worldwide -- including many iterations introduced by Chrysler over the years.

"A lot of the principles are the same as in prior programs," said toolmaker Teresa Horn of China Township, who has worked at Jefferson North for 16 years. "The difference is it's a complete buy-in from management at all levels, to workers on the floor."

Retooling for new products

The plant needed to implement World Class Manufacturing quickly because the Grand Cherokee is the first new product since Fiat and Chrysler joined forces.

The support has been there.

"We were overrun with Italians" -- in a good way, Horn said. Fiat coaches arrived from Europe with computer files and tools -- in stark contract to past mandates under the ownership of Daimler AG and Cerberus Capital Management LP, which lacked necessary manpower or resources.

Under Fiat, "we are seeing money invested and the time to do it," Horn said. That included a one-month shutdown in October to restructure processes and train.

World Class Manufacturing calls for fewer materials and less inventory on the plant floor, fewer steps and motions with improved ergonomics and safety for workers, ease of maintenance and a clean, uncluttered plant.

"There was a lot of cleanup in the plant and we are given time to keep it that way," said Dave Schneider, a pipefitter from Casco. "We had parts there from tools we don't use anymore."

Said Horn: "It's like cleaning out your junk drawer and now you can find your tools better." Critical parts are now beside machines, not stocked in distant storage.

Throughout the plant, the cement floors have been sealed to cut down on dust and other contaminants. They were painted white to easily spot leaks or dropped objects. Lighting is brighter, work and lunch areas are orderly, and fewer forklifts stock the parts bins.

Second shift starts in July

Even the layout of the assembly process has been streamlined with the elimination of smaller lines and more room to work around the main assembly lines.

"It is a cleaner process and they definitely eliminated excess inventory," said Tracy Handler, market analyst for IHS Global Insight in Troy.

There are 1,700 people on a single shift now, with 1,080 on a second shift being added July 19.

"The people on the floor have a lot more input," Schneider said.

All lines and systems were built and tested by skilled trades workers and many spent time with the companies that supplied the equipment, said body shop manager Trajche Sekuloski.

The Grand Cherokee starts life in a new body shop in a 540,000 square-foot addition to the plant. There are 600 robots -- and 70 people on a single shift, down from 99 -- and the shop is flexible enough to add a Dodge seven-passenger SUV later this year.

Four robots with laser-guided cameras take readings of every car body. The system stops if any measurements exceed new and strictly enforced assembly tolerances.

Workers monitor everything. "Already quality levels are higher than any past launch," Horn said.

The body shop has fewer people: 70 compared with 99 on one shift for the outgoing model. But more people are needed in other areas where work has been brought in-house, such as building up the engines, door lines, wheels and tires. Other parts arrive pre-assembled, said Bill Olson, assembly plant coordinator.

Goal is higher productivity

Fiat manufacturing chief Stefan Ketter said Fiat introduced its World Class Manufacturing philosophy five years ago, taking the best of other systems, applying the model to all functions and linking it to cost with clear targets and regular audits. It can take three years or more to achieve the highest levels of manufacturing.

Chrysler's goal is to decrease operating costs by 8 percent this year and increase productivity 10 percent while improving quality 15 percent and reducing injuries 30 percent. Ketter expects to save $1.5 million in manufacturing costs this year, adding to $1.4 million in savings in 2009 when the system was adopted.

An equally important goal at Jefferson North: "We wanted a shop where employees enjoy coming to work and continue the upkeep," said Sekuloski.

For continued luck in those endeavors, an American dollar is buried in the floor, under a painted Pentastar in the atrium where workers enter the building.

From The Detroit News: http://detnews.com/article/20100610/AUTO01/6100370/1148/Chrysler-builds-cars-the-Fiat-way#ixzz0qSeEPcvY

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