Photos by Christopher Chrouch • Story by David Zatz
In 1938, a massive factory in Warren, Michigan, near Sterling Heights and a few miles north of Detroit, started to build trucks. At the time, they made 33 different models; and from 1939 to 1942, they produced 400,000 trucks for the United States military. General Patton was said to prefer the tough Dodges over the more commonplace Chevys in his fast push to Germany.
From 1938 to 2013, Warren built 13.2 million trucks. Today, they build just the Ram 1500, but that one truck has a choice of a diesel, V6, or V8 engine, multiple transmissions and axle ratios, different cabs and beds, and all sorts of trim levels; and buyers can get a sprayed-in bed liner, to boot. The plant runs three crews, using a “3-2-120” operating pattern; so far in 2014 (as of September 25), they produced around 228,000 Ram 1500s.
Today, Warren Truck (once part of “Dodge City”) covers over 4.2 million square feet, spread out over 86 acres of land, with 32 miles of conveyors.
While the plant’s capacity is being increased, its production had been slowly falling for years; only in 2013 did it finally reach the production of 2004, when there were three Dodge Ram plants, rather than the current two. 2009 was the worst year, despite a redesign which was lauded by critics and customers alike.
The plant makes truck bodies as well as assembling the pickups, importing engines from nearby Trenton (V6), Mexico (V8), and Italy (diesel), and transmissions from Indiana. The body-in-white department, which assembles the bodies, has 240 direct employees, 23 indirect, 29 salaried; and 8.6 miles of conveyor. It has 378 robots and does 72 jobs per hour. There are 354 automated quality checks, 5,572 welds per vehicle on average, and 12 different body specificiations. The body-in-white department spans two different buildings.
The paint shop has even more employees — 340 direct, 76 indirect, 30 on salary. It has 14 miles of conveyors, does the same 72 jobs per hour, and makes do with 42 robots. The Ram 1500 has 12 paint colors and three two-tone schemes.
The assembly area has 1,680 total employees, most of whom are direct; 9 miles of conveyors; and just four robots. It does 64 jobs per hour.
Following a 52-month sales streak for the Ram 1500, the Warren Truck Assembly Plant (once part of Michigan’s “Dodge City” complex) is planning to add capacity by 28,585 truck per year, or around 100 pickups per day. The Ram 1500 is consistently one of Chrysler’s best sellers, though it was nearly dropped before a complete redesign for the 1994 model year, which pushed GM and Ford to dramatically upgrade their own pickups.
The Ram 1500 was the first vehicle to win the Motor Trend Truck of the Year award back-to-back, in 2013 and 2014.
Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne wanted to increase Ram production, but did not want to invest in a third plant. Instead, the assembly process will be changed, on the assembly line and in the body and paint shops, and the run rate changed.
The plant went through a “Work Place Integration (WPI)” process to review every operation and look at best practices. Team leaders and operators redesigned more than 353 work stations, nearly all of them; corrected more than 100 issues that could cause injury; and moved nearly 300 parts to improve ergonomics. Nearly all of the assembly operations were trained on new processes; they provided nearly 7,000 additional suggestions on how to improve the efficiency of the line.
Material and parts that were once located line-side in the chassis frame and Motorhouse lines are now gathered into kits or carriers, also known as limos. On the chassis frame line, limos attach to the truck frame, positioning larger and heavier parts, like front and rear shocks, springs and lower control arms, in the area immediately in front of the operator. Less time is spent getting parts or tools, and more attention can be paid to proper assembly.
In the Motorhouse, where the engine assembly is completed before being mated to the chassis, the Warren Truck team had to figure out a way to manage building three different engines (a gasoline V6, a diesel V6, and a V8), with over 170 unique parts and nearly 70 parts that look and feel the same, but are different. The solution was to “kit” the parts and put them not the truck, which prevents time wasted in walking to get parts, while ensuring that the right parts are installed in the right trucks.
Curt Towne, plant manager, said, “The employees actually like the kits. They like the fact that they don’t have to walk as far to grab their parts, which is a waste. That’s time that could be spent building a truck. Plus, at the end of a 10-hour day, they’re not as tired as they once were.”
The Warren Truck team benchmarked other plants that used kits, but their solutions were designed by the plant’s workforce, and built by their own skilled trades. The Warren Truck solution is unique because the team found a way to attach the kit to the carrier without touching it by using automated vehicles to deliver the parts to the line, which the other plants don’t do.
Variation was then moved to the kitting cell, where the parts are pulled to create the kit. Each engine is color coded.
Production lead time is now 2 hours at the body shop, one hour at the buffer, 15 hours at the paint shop, 2.5 hours at the SPD buffer, and 5 hours at the assembly shop, for a total lead time of 25.5 hours (1.3 days). Daily production is 1,172 trucks. At any given time there are 147 trucks in the body shop, 1,050 in the paint shop, 328 in assembly, and 245 in the two buffers.
The Warren Truck Assembly Plant, a few miles north of Detroit itself and close to the Sterling Heights plant (as well as the General Motors tech center), added a third shift on March 4, 2013 and currently employs more than 3,800 people, working four 10-hour days on two shifts six days per week. In 2013, the Warren Truck Assembly Plant built 291,554 Ram Trucks, up from 227,453 in 2012.
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