Minivans

2011 Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Caravan Minivan
Launch at the Windsor Plant

assembly line

Since the 70's, I've been the “van guy.” I've been driving vans since I've been driving, and still have my first van as well as an 1986 Dodge that has gathered a few trophies over the years. So when Dave contacted me to cover the factory launch of the new minivans, I was more than happy to oblige. My wife and I had first generation Plymouth minivan when our kids were young, built at the same plant. Chrysler minivans have been the benchmark and it's time to see if they are still setting the bar, and how they achieve it.

body carriers

The first impression upon stepping out on the production floor is not one of a factory that is over 80 years old. It’s clean, almost hospital clean. In my “day job” as service manager for an automation company, I visit many factories. When I say this is a pleasant work environment, I'm not exaggerating. Well lit, clean, organized, and surprisingly quiet. I have been in the Mound Road Engine plant back in the 1970s, this is worlds away from the factories of old.

body meets chassis

The workers here have a real sense of pride in not only their work, but in keeping their workplace in order. Nowhere did I see trash, rags or even tools scattered about. Those that have never worked in a factory may not realize just how impressive this is. It is rare to find this type of workplace.

car carrier

I feel that it stems from a feeling among the rank and file that they are now working for a company that has a future. No one I talked on the floor seemed to be down on working for Chrysler. This wasn't a corporate smiley-face feeling either, the workers here believe in the company, something that you might not have been able to say just a few years ago.

engine carts

The members of the press were treated to a quick safety briefing before we were escorted to the golf cart jitneys that would transport us to various areas of the plant. We were allowed 8 minutes for each of four stops. Due to a slight mixup, the time was shortened a bit on a couple of stops. Once it was determined that each jitney indeed had a company rep on board, we were off.

engine line

We were warned not to distract the workers any more than necessary, as they did not want our visit to cause any quality issues. The first stop was the drivetrain assembly area, where the engines are mated to the transmission, and the fuel and electrical systems are installed. Everything is positioned to reduce worker fatigue, part of what Chrysler (via Fiat) is calling “World Class Manufacturing.” Think of it as lean manufacturing taken a step further.

factory floor

According to Chrysler, WCM put more than 4400 employees through 30,000 hours of training in order to identify and attack waste and losses on the line. Over 30,000 suggestions on ways to improve processes were submitted at the Windsor plant. One benefit has been a 52% reduction in injuries.

factory

From what I can see, it's working. I've seen many such programs fail due to management downplaying employee input. Chrysler appears to be listening to its workers, in my opinion.

inspection

From drivetrain, we passed the paint shop. Minivan shells are carried on fixture through the paint process, including the all important corrosion resistant coating. After paint, the shells continue along, getting more added until they meet with the drivetrain line, where an automated system pushes the front and rear assemblies in place at once, creating a fairly complete minivan. Wheels are added further down the line as the fixtures carry the minivans on a snaking route through the plant.

interioor

This is where the concept of “vehicle platforms” becomes apparent. This plant once built the Pacifica alongside the Caravan; now it builds the Grand Caravan, Town and Country, and Volkswagen Routan on the same line. The platform is the dimensions of critical points in the vehicle’s structure, allowing it to fit the fixtures as they travel throughout the plant.

Also built here (but not seen on this tour) are export vehicles, right hand drive versions, and commercial versions. All can be built on the same line, at the same time.

Volkswageon Routan

At the end of the tour, we were treated to a press conference by plant leader Marcel Breault, who introduced the rest of the speakers. Of note was Sergio Marchionne reminiscing of his younger days in Ontario. He strayed dramatically from the script, handing it back to Reid Bigland, taking off his watch, and speaking more to the employees of the Windsor plant than to the press. PR stunt? Possibly, but the employees loved it, giving a standing ovation at the conclusion.

totes

The balance of the speakers were the usual politicians (I know little of the Canadian political scene, and it really isn't relevant to the tour. Let it be said that credit was given, and taken, and promises made.)

The final speaker was Ken Lewenza, CAW national president. He had kind words for the current management, stating appreciation for the hours of hard work in the last 18 months.

All in all, for the rather quick tour it was quite interesting. The facility is quite impressive, and the amount of cooperation required to keep it all going 24 hours a day is even more impressive.

V6 dressing

Sergio Marchionne’s announcements and background

Sergio Marchionne revealed that the hybrid Chrysler 300 sedan would be joined by a hybrid minivan in 2013 at the Windsor Assembly Plant celebration on January 18. He also noted that a new compact car, replacing the Neon and filling a long-standing hole in the product line, would be the first to get a nine-speed automatic transmission when it arrives in April 2013.

The hybrid technology is, according to Marchionne, Chrysler’s own, which appears to run counter to earlier rumors that it would be based on that of Maserati.

stands

As hinted last week, the next generation of minivans will include a conventional van with a sliding door, a crossover, a full size front wheel drive sedan, and possibly other vehicles to sell under Fiat brands. All wheel drive appears to be returning to minivans, or to vehicles on the same architecture. All vehicles based on this architecture (at least for North America) are to be built in Windsor.

The Windsor plant runs three shifts, partly due to the closing of the St. Louis minivan plant. Currently, the Town & Country is the U.S.’s best selling minivan while the Grand Caravan is the world’s best seller.

Windsor 2011

Originally built in 1928, the surviving Windsor Assembly Plant is the largest of 14 Chrysler assembly plants with 4 million square feet of floor space. Since the 1990s, Windsor has increased its lead in productivity and quality, thanks largely to an employee-led change effort.

The complex dates back to 1916, when Chalmers set up a branch factory in Walkerville, which is now part of Windsor, Ontario. Maxwell opened a factory nearby shortly afterwards. Maxwell-Chalmers were reorganized to become Chrysler Corporation of Canada Limited in 1925; and in 1928, with the purchase of Dodge Brothers, Dodge’s Toronto operations were moved to Windsor. The company built a new factory on Tecumseh Road in South Walkerville, which built all Chrysler brands — 20,010 cars in its first year, which gave Chrysler a larger market share in Canada than in the United States.

Kaizen

The Windsor Assembly Plant (Plant 3) was built in 1929. Retired Chrysler Canada photographer Larry Monkhouse wrote that, in the late 1950s, “Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto, and Chrysler models were built on the same assembly line. Production included the Chrysler Windsor shown above, and the Dodge Viscount for the Canadian market. Dodge and Plymouth models shared body panels.” (Larry provided numerous photos of 1975 cars being built at Windsor while Dan Stern provided photos and movies of 2009 minivans being built at Windsor.)

lane

A source within the plant added in January 2011 that the plant has 23 days worth of orders. The source said that there is a three eight-hour shift system with "tag relief" -- the line doesn't stop between shifts -- including two nine-minute breaks, and a 22-minute lunch, resulting in over 500 units per shift. No CAW workers are on layoff; a yearly paid absence allowance totals 80 hours (ten days), and the last applicant "off the street" was hired in 2000. Temporary part-time student workers are also used.

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Chrysler Windsor Assembly Plant at AllparBuilding minivans at Windsor in 2009

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