Chrysler’s Sterling Heights Assembly (SHAP) and Stamping Plants
Built off a main road north of Detroit, the Sterling Heights Assembly Plant (SHAP) was built in 1953 to make jet engines, and was later operated by the Army to build missiles (Chrysler was the contractor building Redstone and Jupiter missiles). Jeff Branch wrote that in the 1970s it was known as the Vought Missile Plant — owned by Chrysler — and had the Vought name on it (Mr. Branch also filled out some of the following history.)
Volkswagen bought the “Vought plant” and converted it to an automobile plant in 1980, along with the Westmoreland, Pennsylvania Chrysler plant (put to work for 1979 Rabbits, and shutting down after around ten years). The plan was to make Rabbits in Pennsylvania, and Jettas in Michigan, but Volkswagen, after modifying the plant as requested by Sterling Heights — putting bridges over the railroad tracks, for example — and converting it to automotive production, changed its mind and built a factory in Mexico to make Jettas.
Volkswagen sold the Sterling Heights plant to a rising Chrysler Corporation in 1983. In 2010, the facility encompassed 3 million square feet, or 286 acres.
Chrysler renovated the plant to build the Chrysler LeBaron GTS and Dodge Lancer starting in 1984; designed to bring the qualities of European sport sedans to the moderate-price market, these cars, including turbocharged, stick-shift models, sold with some success in Germany for around US$30,000.
From 1984 on, Sterling Heights built a succession of midsized front-wheel-drive cars. It was scheduled for closure, but the success of the Chrysler 200 brought it back to full production, and it’s now been greatly expanded with new paint and body shops — and may well be used as an “overflow plant” for one car or crossover completely different from the 200.
The LeBaron GTS and Lancer were joined by the similarly styled and similary sized Shadow and Sundance (which was to spawn the Sundance Duster); in 1992, the waning (and related) Daytona production was assigned to SHAP as well. The last Daytona was built in 1993; while the last Sundance/Shadow (#1,423,068) was produced on March 11, 1994. At the time, the plant could build 270,000 vehicles per year with just two shifts.
A new era began with the JA (Stratus/Cirrus/Breeze); SHAP became the sole source of mid-sized Chrysler vehicles, in a changeover which took 19 weeks and cost $350 million. When JA was released, it sold at almost twice the projected rate and Sterling Heights Assembly was hard pressed to keep up.
The 2001 changeover to the second generation J cars cost $985 million, and included moving Sebring Convertible production from Toluca, Mexico, into Sterling Heights. Chrysler wrote that the new paint facility had a hospital-clean environment. Everyone entering the paint area passed through an air sealed chamber and foot pond to remove loose dust or dirt from clothing and shoes. Workers wore special gowns and surgical caps over their regular clothing. There were 113 small lagoons where continuously running water attracted particles from the air.
In 2005, Chrysler listed four facilities in Sterling Heights:
- Sterling Heights Administration Center: 149 employees. Corporate accounts payable, manufacturing group accounting, manufacturing offices and a data center.
- Sterling Heights Vehicle Test Center: 22 employees. Conducts emissions and on-board diagnostics quality assurance testing; and preparation and maintenance of company vehicles.
- Sterling Heights Assembly Plant: 2,458 employees. Dodge Stratus sedan, Chrysler Sebring sedan, Chrysler Sebring Convertible. [In 2011, 2,302 employees were listed.]
- Sterling Stamping Plant: 2,517 employees. Automotive body stampings and assemblies such as hoods, decklids, quarter panels, roofs, liftgates, side apertures, front fenders, doors, floor pans and rails. This plant is a separate facility, next door to the Sterling Heights Assembly Plant.
In early 2006, a red Dodge Stratus rolled off the assembly line at the Sterling Heights Assembly Plant, ending a generation that saw a total of 1,308,123 Stratus models built from 2000-2006.
Chrysler had already sold the entire assembly line to Russian automaker GAZ; once the last Stratus was built, the old line was torn out, and a more sophisticated flexible manufacturing setup was installed in both the assembly and stamping plants, a $500 million investment also designed to improve quality, productivity, and ergonomics.
One relatively minor change was relayed to employees in May 2006:
Manually sealing the taillamp area of a vehicle on a moving line is a precarious process. Curves, nooks, crannies and other blind spots are easy to miss, resulting in pinhole water leaks. But thanks to a new sealant process at Sterling Heights Assembly Plant, water leaks on the taillamp area are a thing of the past.
In 2007, Chrysler quoted Frank Ewasyshyn, Executive Vice President—Manufacturing as saying, "We are seeing a great deal of success at the Sterling Heights facility due to the commitment of our plant employees. Their willingness to support and foster a small-team workplace model has delivered a successful second-vehicle launch.”
Fred Goedtel, Vice President of Small/Premium/Family Vehicle Assembly said at the time, “The assembly operation now has the capability to build multiple upper bodies and multiple vehicle families or architectures, which gives us the flexibility to add new models or ’cross-load‘ models from other plants in order to better meet the dynamics of the market.”
The plant was then to build the Chrysler Sebring, similar Dodge Avenger, and the Chrysler Sebring Convertible. While styling of the Dodge and Chryslers was completely different inside and out, the basic dimensions, powertrain, and pricing were the same. SHAP could, though, vary its production mix among three products anywhere from 0% to 100% percent of each model, while piloting a fourth product. Had Brampton been built to the same specifications, they could have rolled out nothing but Challengers and police-order Chargers, letting Charger and 300 inventory balance out, in 2009-10.
The flexible approach approach allows Chrysler to efficiently build lower-volume vehicles that take advantage of market niche, and to quickly shift production between different models within a single plant or among multiple plants. Under Daimler and Cerberus, there were not enough engineers to actually design those new models, but the capability was there, awaiting new investments which were to come under Fiat rule.
At the core of the new process was a body shop of 620 new robots instead of vehicle-specific heavy tooling. Only the robots' end effectors, or "hands," need to change in order to build the different models. That tool change is done automatically, within the time it takes to cycle from one vehicle to the next. A fourth model can also be piloted—or test-built—at the same time, helping reduce the time needed to make new-model changeovers.
The Trim, Chassis and Final (TCF) areas received a new glass cell, windshield decking, chassis insertion loop system, fluid fill equipment and rolls-test machines. Each of these improved processes contributed to the plant's overall productivity and efficiency.
The new “Smart Workplace” model promoted employee involvement in all facets in the design and processing of the work stations, increasing quality, productivity, and morale and cutting scrap and other costs.
|LeBaron GTS / Lancer||1985-89|
|Stratus/Sebring sedans, convertible||2001-2006|
|Avenger/Sebring sedans, convertible||2007-????|
|Predicted: Fiats and
Fiat-based Chrysler vehicles
The stamping plant, originally built in 1965, was 2.7 million square feet in size; in 2008 it had 464 robots on its 254 acres. The plant employed 2,500 people in 2007, but just 1,830 people by May 2008. The plant was home to UAW Locals 1264, 889 and 412. In 2008, the plant made stampings and assemblies including hoods, deck lids, quarter panel, roofs, floor pans, and fenders for the Challenger, Sebring/Avenger, Ram, minivans, Grand Cherokee, and Liberty/Nitro.
The plant was originally set to be closed in December 2010, but after appeals from numerous parties, the new Chrysler purchased it from the bankrupt remains of the old Chrysler, and in August 2010 announced that it would remain open and would produce the next generation of midsized cars — engineered by Chrysler, using a modified set of dimensions developed by Fiat. During 2009, the plant was operating on just a half-shift; recreating the 200 and Avenger bolstered employment dramatically (by 2011, to two shifts).
New body and paint shops; 2015 Chrysler 200 renovation
Story, photos, and video moved to the 2013-14 Sterling Heights renovation and building a 2015 Chrysler 200 page.