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Building the Chrysler LH Cars: New Methods of Design and Manufacturing

chrysler LHS

The LH cars were the first of Chrysler's vehicles to be built using modern systems - cross-functional teams, factory worker and supplier involvement, and world-class benchmarking. This article is based on contemporary (1992) Chrysler press information, which was unusually detailed and had a high information-to-blather ratio. We've edited them as well, to reduce the blather.

The LH series - the Dodge Intrepid, Chrysler Concorde, Eagle Vision, and Chrysler New Yorker - put the new Chrysler Corporation on the map. A New York Times article on this series more than doubled the stock price, and turned journalists from trashing Chrysler vehicles to praising them. Automobile would even devote an entire issue to Chrysler. This was the company's third and last Golden Age, lasting until its end in 1998. While sales did not always increase - the Stratus, Breeze, and Cirrus saw fewer sales than the Acclaim, LeBaron, and Spirit they replaced - all car lines were actually profitable, including the Neon, alone among American (and most import) small cars despite superior space and performance.

It is worth noting that the LH series were very well made, and that most failures occured on components purchased from other vendors (the air conditioning units and antilock brakes) and on the transmissions, which were designed before the LH was created. Even then, the transmissions appear to have had a much lower failure rate than they did in minivan use.

inside the 1993 dodge intrepid

Incidentally, for more information on Chrysler's quality initiatives, click here. For more on the LH cars, click here.

Quality incorporated into the design process

Quality objectives for the LH manufacturing process were given greater priority than any vehicle Chrysler has ever built. For the first time, quality goals were present from the very beginning of the project, and through all stages of development. "We were actually on board even before the program evolved into the LH ... back when it was called the Liberty Project and the engine layout was still east-west," recalled John P. Hinckley, Director of Manufacturing Engineering for the LH Platform Team.

Quality and worker involvement at Chrysler assembly plants

Three Chrysler manufacturing facilities are intimately involved in the LH build process:

While the Platform Team approach permitted LH's development cycle to be reduced to 39 months, a world-class time, the actual manufacturing process will not be hurried.

High quality will be the watchword. A slower-than-usual launch curve won't bring the Bramalea assembly plant to full production levels (about 1,000 units a day on two shifts) until early 1993.

By then, Bramalea's nearly 3,000 workers collectively will have logged a total of 900,000 hours of pre-production training in both classroom and 'hands-on' environments.

1997 eagle vision

"This is a very efficient plant," noted Hinckley. "Bramalea will be capable of a 65-car per hour line speed, but it's 35 per cent smaller than other plants that produce at that rate."

A sophisticated pallet system for the assembly and installation of the LH vehicle chassis represents one important element of Bramalea's built-in efficiency.

The pallet, a long metal template, simulates the component positioning of chassis components to the vehicle underbody. The system occupies about one-quarter of the chassis assembly area's floor space.

The pallet moves along a rectangular loop assembly line as components -- engine, transaxle, exhaust system, fuel tank, rear suspension, brakes and fuel line -- are placed on it, one by one. When all components are on board, the brake system is filled and tested and the pallet is hydraulically raised to meet the underside of a waiting car body where the chassis is clamped and secured automatically. The pallet is then lowered and begins the process all over again.

chrysler concorde suspension

The system also is designed to minimize worker fatigue since attachment of most components is done at eye level. It has only six overhead stations, compared to 40 for older, traditional overhead chassis assembly systems.

The plant workers, who began assembling pre-production LH vehicles on-site in November 1991, were able to focus on optimizing the build-process and identifying and resolving build issues early in the program.

In the past at Chrysler, vehicles were designed and engineered through the pilot manufacturing stage and handed over to the plant only about 22 weeks ahead of the actual production launch.

With LH, Bramalea workers were observing first-hand the earliest pilot LH vehicles being assembled at Chrysler's Highland Park Engineering shops at a point 95 weeks (nearly two years) ahead of the launch.

At 75 weeks, plant employees were participating in the pilot assembly process and, at 50 weeks, all pre-production vehicles were being built by Bramalea employees.

Additionally, for the first time at Chrysler, the 16-week and C-I pilot (final level pre-production) cars were built on-line at Bramalea with all production tooling and facilities in place.

Customer involvement

Owner-focused communication -- getting a better grasp of customer inputs -- was an integral part of the LH development program. G. Glenn Gardner, general manager -- Large Car Platform Engineering, recalled a classic example of how that communication reaped dividends:

"Our research told us that Japanese cars had a reputation for feeling more agile and responsive off the line. Yet, in all of our performance data, every dimensional measurement, we whipped those guys (the Japanese) at 0-60 MPH and passing time, as well. Our products were faster and got better fuel economy, too. But darn it, our cars just didn't feel as good as theirs.

"We wanted to know why this notion persisted and to make sure the LH would be as responsive as any Japanese product in the initial launch phase. So we did some intense ride-and-drive sessions with consumers, using Chrysler and competitive products.

front view of cars

"Traditionally, when U.S. car companies do controlled acceleration testing, they concern themselves with the first five-second distance and the 0-60 MPH time -- all run at wide-open throttle.

"In ride-and-drive sessions, we found that most people accelerate at no more than three-quarters throttle -- and only for the first two seconds. Then they ease off, whether they feel it's a waste of fuel or out of fear of damaging the engine.

"We engineers never considered that. We believed the only way to get the proper 0-60s was foot to the floor, pedal to the metal. Yet the average motorist never goes beyond three-quarters throttle. With that data in hand, we said, 'We know how to handle that, thank you very much."'

The LH engineers went back to their proverbial drawing boards and simply changed the linearity of the throttle response curve so that virtually all of the throttle response is built into the first three- fourths of the curve. There purposely is little left in the final, pedal-to-metal phase.

"We simply changed our parameters," explained Gardner. "If you now drive an LH with a 3.5-liter engine, for example, you'll find the off-the-line response is much improved. The car feels better more agile ... and in a 0-60 test it still will beat any Japanese product with the same size engine in any driving environment."

To be sure, LH final acceleration times are world class. In 0-60 mph, the 3.5-liter was clocked in 8.8 seconds, while the 3.3 established an 11.5-second rating.

The lesson learned? Well, all Chrysler Platform Engineering Teams now program powertrain launch measurements in two-second distance at part throttle opening positions.

Anectdotes and examples of Chrysler's engineering process

Dodge Intrepid, Chrysler Concorde, and Eagle Vision door construction

The door construction in LH's new Cab Forward design presented a particular challenge to LH manufacturing engineers who preferred simpler, fully-stamped doors that covered the edge of the windshield and the "A" pillar.

"Because the LH's design called for front doors that were flush underneath the roof rail, ones that couldn't wrap around the A-pillar, it made the door construction more complex," said Hinckley. Instead of one single outer door stamping, three separate stampings were required for the upper portion above the car's belt line. The inner panel remained a single piece, however.

"It was a construction challenge that involved more tooling and door assembly stations, but there is no dimensional problem," assured Hinckley.

1997 vision

A major quality advantage is the fact that all doors, decks and hoods are built right in the body shop at Bramalea from stampings produced literally 'across the aisle.'

"Being able to assemble them ourselves gives us better dimensional control and reaction time," said Hinckley.

"That's especially important with the complexity of building four separate hoods, three deck lids and 10 different doors ... which will be our mix once the new Chrysler New Yorker is launched."

Because of the exposed A-pillars in the LH design, as well as the C-pillars at the rear of the car, manufacturing had to develop a unique, robotic spray-brazing system to reduce in-plant metal finishing needed to eliminate imperfections visible through the paint.

"We couldn't braze these joints manually and maintain the surface quality we're demanding on these cars," explained Hinckley.

Engine compartment challenges

Hinckley also pointed to manufacturing challenges that had to be addressed for LH's smaller-than- usual engine compartment, where, "everything was tying to occupy the same space," but solutions were effectively developed here, as well.

Getting the LH's new powertrain -- the 3.5-liter, 24-valve, SOHC V-6 engine, as well as its new 42LE fully adaptive, electronic 4-speed transaxle -- ready for manufacture required new and different approaches, too.

"We forced the system to identify who the major suppliers for machine tools would be early-on," said Howard B. Padgham, executive engineer -- Powertrain Engineering for Chrysler' Large Car Platform Team. "We established simultaneous engineering teams headed up by the people from the Trenton Engine and Kokomo Transmission plants."

These teams, which also included representatives from Engineering, outside tool suppliers and Chrysler Purchasing, met every two weeks during the engine program. They all had to mutually concur on each phase of development.

In a highly-unusual approach for Chrysler, machine tool suppliers for the LH powertrain were handed the business up front and left to negotiate price later.

Further, machine tool suppliers for both the LH engine and transaxle were required to demonstrate, on the floor at their own plants, that their production-ready machinery bad the capability to hold specified critical dimensions even before the tools were shipped to Trenton (engine) or Kokomo (transaxle).

The same process had to be repeated by the suppliers once the machinery was on site at the Trenton and Kokomo plants, but while handing off the operation to Chrysler Manufacturing personnel at the two sites.

"It was an act of faith on all sides, I guess," said Padgham. "But in this program, we had just 39 months from start to finish and it clearly demanded new ways of doing business."

There were no late surprises en route, according to Padgham. The extra effort into front-end planning in terms of timing paid dividends. The teams met every one of their due dates.

"And the machine tool supply people were embarrassed at times by the fact that the old method where they'd 'buy' the business (bidding low to get a job, recouping profits on later design changes) didn't work with LH. We had few changes because we worked things out early," he added.

Early production and trial runs

The 3.5-liter V-6 will be machined on a new, separate line at Trenton, but it will be assembled on the same line with LH's standard 3.3-liter engine, a well as the 3.8-liter engine utilized elsewhere in the Chrysler model lineup.

The same, closely-calculated manufacturing development approach used with the 3.5-liter engine was extended to LH's newly-designed 42LE automatic transaxle.

1998 chrysler concorde interior

"We got management's blessing to do an actual production trial run of components off production machines ... to production processes, "said Padgham. "That was in June, 1991, a full year ahead of actual production.

"It required a lot of up front investment by the company, quite a commitment. But it allowed us to get the production tooling in place very early and have an opportunity run it. To my knowledge, an in-plant trial run like this has never happened before at Chrysler."

The first 42LE transaxle from production tooling came off the line at Kokomo, January 2, 1 992, six months ahead of the timing in past new-car programs. Full-scale production was launched April 1.

Oops! Handling an accident

It certainly happened in the LH program. A giant body fixture, which already was late in delivery, fell from a truck carrying it to Chrysler's Outer Drive Manufacturing Technical Center.

The truck was turning a corner at Ten Mile Road and Dequindre, in Detroit, when the heavy-gauge steel fixture fell off and smashed into several pieces.

An overhead crane had to be brought in to pick up the pieces. The whole fixture had to be rebuilt. Although it didn't affect the overall program timing on LH, the fixture installation had to be reshuffled.

Late cradles

Then there was the classic foul-up by one of the LH supplier companies. Because of the industry consolidation in Detroit, the firm decided to withdraw its engineering group and consolidate it at company headquarters in Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, the LH Team was anxiously awaiting the promised delivery of engine cradles from that supplier. These cradles were targeted for the earliest LH prototype vehicles.

However, the movers had other ideas. Or no idea at all, depending on your viewpoint. They packed the engine cradles, along with the office furniture, and hauled them to Milwaukee.

Frantic phone calls sent supplier engineers into the warehouse where they sorted out the cradles, packed them and air freighted them back to Detroit, just in time to meet the LH prototype-build schedule.

Saving money while increasing reliability by doing it differently

An electronic transaxle gear indicator (PRNDL -- Park, Reverse, Neutral, Drive, Low) was considered a "must" in the new LH cars and it was in the product plan from the outset. It was to be the first Chrysler product to utilize an electronic PRNDL.

"It was another item that we included, just to please the customer," recalled Gardner. The LH team had budgeted $1 per car for the new PRNDL, but when the engineering research came back, the reality set in. The cost was up to $6.80 per unit. This was unacceptable, obviously, and the team decided to revert to a mechanical PRNDL.

But one young engineer held out for the electronic approach. On his own, he went out and studied all the Japanese and European cars he could find just to determine how they did it.

"As he looked at them," recalled Gardner, "he began to realize what we at Chrysler were doing was putting in new electronics to take a signal from the transmission, process it, and take that signal and transmit it somewhere else to tell the driver the gear position he was in."

The more the engineer thought about it, the clearer it became. "We already had an electronic transmission," said Gardner, "and it tells us when it's in 'DRIVE' and it gives off a signal that says so. So we took the signal that was already there and simply added a PRNDL lamp on the instrument cluster."

The LH Team endorsed the new approach wholeheartedly, and it even cost less than the original $1 per car budgeted, said Gardner.

"It's actually less expensive than a mechanical PRNDL and there's no adjustability needed. The PRNDL read-out is always in the right gear selection mode because the signal comes directly from the transmission."

Transmission routing

Most of the 1 993 LH cars sold are expected to have a five-passenger seating arrangement with a center-mounted floor shift for the transmission. Six-passenger models, with bench seats, will have a column-mounted shifter.

Routing these two separate systems to the transmission from the shifter raised troublesome questions for LH engineers.

The floor-mounted system originally was routed, by cable, under the floor pan and run to the transmission. The column-mounted shifter was routed through a hole in the engine compartment firewall.

This created not only potential corrosion problems for the under-car routing of the floor-mounted cable, but also added to the manufacturing complexity with two different systems to assemble.

One thoughtful LH engineer suggested routing the end of the floor-mounted cable along the floor tunnel, up the firewall and out the same exit opening utilized for the column-mounted shifter.

Once production of LH's begins, the individual on the assembly line will find the cable that hangs out of the firewall is exactly the same connection, regardless if it's a floor or column-mounted system.

"It certainly simplified the process," noted Gardner, "and the routing cable is inside the car, high in the engine compartment and that's a much better environment from a corrosion standpoint."

The only hitch was the change came late in the LH development program. Floor consoles, with their complex routing systems, had already been designed. But LH engineers put their collective heads together and made it happen.

"We saved tooling money, as well," said Gardner. "I'm convinced we never could have accomplished the change under the old engineering structure. It would have gone in only as a running change, late in the model year."

Unexpected cooperation

Midway through the program, LH engineers realized they were running over budget on the redesign of the base 3.3-liter V-6 engine for the Dodge Intrepid, Chrysler Concorde and Eagle Vision.

As they fretted over the dilemma, a big assist came from an unexpected source -- Jim DeKeyser, manager of Chrysler's Trenton ( Mich.) Engine Plant where the 3.3-liter engine is built. DeKeyser wrote a letter to Gardner, which said in part:

"Glenn, I have set a target for the people in my plant and we're going to reduce the cost to you for the 3.3-liter engine by $30 per car. So, you can write that in your budget to help get the car on target."

Gardner admits he was flabbergasted and couldn't recall such a 'giveback' in all his years with Chrysler.

"Here's a supply guy who obviously could have taken that $30 per car and put it into his plant's profits," he said. "Instead, he gave it to us to make sure the LH was on target."

Another instance of unexpected cross-sector support for LH occurred when the assembly group at the Bramalea (Ontario) Assembly Plant -- where the sedans will be built -- volunteered to transfer some of its investment money to the adjacent stamping plant budget in order to finish some over- target tooling.

"That would have been unheard of in this corporation a few years ago," said Gardner.

Real test for powerful air conditioning

Residents of Phoenix will long remember June 26, 1 990. So will some LH test engineers. The thermometer reached an all-time high of 1 22 degrees Fahrenheit in the Arizona city that day.

The scorching temperatures even forced an unprecedented 90-minute shutdown of the city's Sky Harbor International Airport. More than 22 flights were delayed or cancelled. It seems commercial airliners aren't designed to operate in temperatures above 120 degrees.

Nearby, however, another important activity continued uninterrupted by the searing heat -- road testing of the unique, complex climate control system in Chrysler's new LH cars.

"We were running our regular city street tests," explained Stanley C. Surratt, manager -- Climate Control, for the LH team. "Not only did the air conditioning perform flawlessly, but the engine cooling system came through without a glitch, as well."

See interviews on this topic with Francois Castaing and John Gardner.

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