by Christopher Chrouch
John North Willys, leading Overland, bought Toledo Steamer’s huge factory in 1907 (almost gaining Chrysler great Owen Skelton in the process.) Overland became Willys-Overland, which created the Jeep brand after World War II; Kaiser bought the company, then sold it to AMC; and Chrysler bought AMC. Meanwhile, the plant churned out Jeeps, including the Grand Wagoneer, until it was demolished and the current two-million-square-foot Toledo North plant installed on its site, in 2001.
The mood in the plant was absolutely upbeat, and the workers carried themselves very well: smiling, conversing, truly enjoying the work and the pleasure of each others’ company. Notably, Toledo North had one of the cleanest air qualities I've ever experienced in a factory of this size. If the attitudes of the line workers are any indication of the quality of the new Cherokee, I’d say its future is bright.
The line was operating when we arrived. Thanks to robotics and automation, workloads appear to be light as Chrysler seems to have orchestrated the perfect balance between manpower and the machine. In the body shop, workers don't lift heavy body panels, but load the bolts and other fasteners while running the automation. (In the video, workers are moving slowly as they get used to their jobs, but under full production, they will have to move at over six times that speed.)
The plant lighting was unusual, without the color cast one normally finds. Almost all of the images shown here are natural, with no post-processing and no flash. The images inside the measurement center posed the biggest issues, but the plant is extremely well lit. Many of the walls feature huge windows to take advantage of natural light [in the past, Chrysler has referred to using natural light to save energy, but using less artificial light during the day].
Toledo Assembly is climate controlled; people work in a comfortable environment free from the extremes of humidity and temperature felt in the old Detroit factories.
The plant was retooled during a months-long refit, including a new 225,000 square foot body shop. The last Liberty SUV rolled out of this facility over eleven months ago, and since then Chrysler has gone to extraordinary lengths to upgrade the facilty while launching the Cherokee.
The plant now features Chrysler’s flexible assembly lines, which allows up to four different models to be assembled with minimal adjustments. That kind of flexibility mirrors changes made to other plants such as Belvidere, where the Dart is produced. The ideal is to be able to swap most of the company’s cars from plant to plant as needed, so that if there is a sudden demand for Darts, Toledo can help out; or if Cherokees are in short supply, Sterling Heights or Belvidere can pitch in.
One of the keys to WCM is the new Toledo North Metrology Lab (measurement center). The 26,000 square foot area allows both the company and suppliers to take absolute measurements from cars and parts, helping to isolate problems (to specific parts, processes, machines, or people), improving fit and speed of solutions. The teams are continually finding ways to eliminate gaps, wind noise, and other possible fitment issues.
World Class Manufacturing, which is quite similar to pre-Daimler quality initiatives within Chrysler Corporation, includes a goal of eliminating waste in nearly every form. That includes not only systems approaches, but Taylor-esque motion analyses, such as cutting on the number of movements a worker must take to screw a bolt or grab a part. At Toledo North, you quickly notice a lack of parts bins (or much of anything else in the aisles); the plant is cleaner than many hospitals.
Chrysler is ramping up production of the Cherokee; on the day of our visit it was around 15% of the one-vehicle-per-minute rate they intend to reach. To do so will require hiring (or rehiring) 1,100 skilled workers, who will undergo vigorous training before reaching the line. Chrysler hopes to cut the turnover ratio of approved applicants to just 5%. (I spoke with the production manager where the axles are being assembled; they didn’t tell anyone what current production numbers are, but he said they are running 110 axle assemblies a day, ramping up to 518 axles in a ten hour shift, with two such shifts per day.)
If the plant is kept running for ten hours per day, six days a week, it can produce over 350,000 cars per year, well above Chrysler CEO’s Sergio Marchionne’s public goal of selling 275,000 Cherokees per year. The plant could, given the similarities between the facilities, then help make Compasses or Darts for Belvidere, or Journeys and 200s for Sterling Heights. For the moment, with just two shifts, it will likely not hit the sales target, but a third shift is always waiting in the wings.
Also see... Factory photos: 2009 Dodge Ram - 1995 Neon - Chrysler LeBaron Convertible - Newark Assembly Plant
Working at the plant: Dave Tyjeski (2009), Bill Wetherholt (2009), Matt Wetherholt (2009), Views (2002), Teamwork (1998)
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