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Using all assets: How plant workers and suppliers
accelerated and improved Neon development

by David Zatz
partly from Chrysler materials

The Neon was a major achievement for Chrysler, fresh from the victorious LH cars and Ram trucks. The first American small car in years to actually make a profit, the Neon was bigger than its competitors — and faster, with far better handling, and better gas mileage than its predecessor. As the Neon started winning at the track, dealers cashed in — charging above list price, where they had been giving discounts.

1997 dodge neon

For about the same cost as converting the Daytona and Acclaim into the Shadow, Chrysler had built a completely new car. The company was proud of the Neon; they had involved workers more in the design process, and pushed boundaries of safety, quality, and environmental friendliness. Design flaws would quickly appear and destroy the small car’s reputation, but assembly quality was higher than past models, and some long-standing problems (including oil leaks) were not to be found.

belvidere factory

The following sections will tell you why the Neon was a great success - and also why its construction quality was high, despite glitches that marred its reputation. It’s a story of involving plant employees and customers, of changing engineering principles, of innovation, and of a spirit which we can only hope will return to Chrysler.

Some brief notes

prototype - the original Neon

Plant workers involved and empowered

Keith Nelson, Belvidere launch coordinator, told an internal Chrysler writer, “It used to be that the engineers handed off the project to the assembly plant 28 weeks before volume production began; Belvidere’s workers, however, stepped in to begin working on the Neon 186 weeks before Job One [the first day of production].”

Neon preparation

The Belvidere workforce started working with engineers on development. Assembly technician Lynn Baker said, “This is the first time in my 30 years in this business that hourly people and management all sat down at the same table and brainstormed the car from birth to when we put it out to pasture,”

Busloads of engineers traveled to Belvidere to ready the car for production, while half the plant’s workforce (1,500 people) went on periodic training trips to the Chrysler Technology Center (CTC) in Auburn Hills, Michigan.

split Neon

Along the way, many shared some unique experiences. They drove competitive cars, including the Honda Civic, Saturn, and Toyota Corolla, for comparison to the Neon. A group of plant workers went with engineers doing customer research at a ride-and-drive program in San Diego, to see what customers really wanted from the Neon.

The plant’s staff was brought into the process in early 1992. As they were trained by 80 process engineers, they also told engineers of better ways to get jobs done. There were around 4,000 employee suggestions, many of which were used in the design of the car and its assembly process. Engineers put the plant workers’ experience to work.

seats

Two workers, Ron Swain and Gary Smoot, suggested changes to the Neon’s door- installation equipment for a better fit of the glass. Head of assembly operations Frank Ewasyshyn said, “Employees influenced the design of the setting fixture right from the beginning; they changed the handles, changed the sequence, changed almost everything in the early stages. ... They’re part of the actual development activity and, in the end, it really is their tool. They have ownership, which makes a big difference.”

neon factory

Frank Ewasyshyn continued: “In the past, the instrument panel tooling, would be developed somewhere in the engineer group ... the first time the operator would see it would be the day he or she showed up on the job to use the tool. This time, the employees were part of the development process. They worked with the right from the beginning. They helped us in determining the best place for the handles, what the handles should look like, how fast the tool should move, whether or not they should be motorized. We used their inputs extensively.”

small car development team

Belvidere management was also able to send the large numbers of plant personnel to CTC for hands-on training at the pilot plant. A special agreement with the local unions allowed the plant to operate two weeks with one shift, then two weeks with the other, so people from nonworking shifts could go to the CTC.

dodge neon welder

Belvidere, former home of the Dodge Dynasty and the former Chrysler New Yorker and Imperial models, was chosen to assemble the Neon partly because many of its people had made the small Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon.

Ewosyshyn said that a key element of success was the fact that employees could see their ideas and suggestions weren’t falling on deaf ears:

Any time you do something different like this, there is a certain amount of skepticism. Employees weren’t always sure where we were coming from. But once they got into the process and began to influence and change the car they realized we were really serious.

You can see it clearly in the enthusiasm of the work force. It really is their process ... their car. They had a lot of input, we paid a lot of attention to it. That really is a big product advantage.

building a neon

Plant workers told a Chrysler writer that they agreed: Lynn Baker said, “There’s been fantastic communication between all of us. Engineers sat down and explained to us why they couldn’t do a certain thing our way and we told them why we had to have it that way. We were able to work out a solution together. I think we’ve had one of the smoothest launches in the history of Chrysler by being able to work together.”

Jim McDaniel added:

The engineers have the technology and the design, but what they couldn’t picture in their minds was someone doing a job producing 72 cars on hour, day in and day out. When they made a part and took it down to the pilot plant, they would have a day or two to fit that part, and concluded that it would work. We could look at it and see it would be okay one or two a day, but not if you’re building one in less than a minute’s time. They listened when we told them it wouldn’t work.

Checkerboard square at the Neon factory

“Checkerboard Square” is fairly small, but it was significant in pre-production development of the 1995 Dodge, Plymouth, and Chrysler Neon. The name comes from the floor design: a series of squares carefully laid out in a specific pattern within Chrysler Corporation’s Belvidere Assembly Plant.

The 12x12 squares were designed to help simulate the position of work stations, tools, and the build sequence, and to study operator ergonomics, focusing on trim, door glass, and chassis operations; when the plant itself was set up, workers could count squares instead of measuring.

checkerboard square

The square was set up in the pilot-build stage to improve plant ergonomics and efficiency, and prevent expensive errors later. It included floor-level and overhead conveyors, and was in operation even as the plant built Dynastys, New Yorkers, and Imperials; groups of people could be taken off the line and asked to simulate Neon building, complete with restocking of parts.

The first of its kind in a Chrysler assembly plant, the process also contributed to a more efficient positioning of height-related work stations along the assembly line.

dodge neon assembly line

Ewasyshyn pointed out that vehicle height hadn’t always been considered in the build sequence; but if common work heights were arranged to be together, costs could be lowered (because conveyor heights didn’t have to be changed as often) and ergonomics could be improved

2.0 engine - sideManufacturing also planned for future variations of the Neon (though none were made until the PT Cruiser, which was not made alongside the Neon), which, among other things, meant leaving “white space” for extra stations. Ewasyshyn said that many manufacturers “leave a single block of open area. In this case, the tooling is positioned in such a way that the stations are already there.” That means new functions could be added without downtime

Quality and the Chrysler-Plymouth-Dodge Neon Launch

Ronald R. Boltz, a vice president at Chrysler and the general manager of Small Car Platform Operations, said that the Neon team started to studying the work of the past platform teams — which created the LH cars, Dodge Ram, and Jeep Grand Cherokee. They looked at those teams’ achievements and chose to improve on them by bringing customers, suppliers, and assembly workers in earlier.

2005 chrysler belvidere plant

Traditionally, engineers handed off a new car to the assembly plant about seven months before volume production. Belvidere began working on the Neon more than three years before production — indeed, months before the program was officially approved.

welders

In addition to helping make the first prototypes, the Belvidere workers made many suggestions, resulting in over 4,000 changes to the car and production process. To bolster quality, they test-drove fifty Neons for over a million miles, which was critical in cutting noise and vibration problems, not to mention general durability and reliability.

Enter the suppliers

Ronald Boltz noted that suppliers were “full members” of the team: “Many were brought in before program approval to confer on pricing, tooling and other issues for the components they would supply. They worked side-by-side with us at CTC and we went to their facilities to better understand their capabilities.”

Major systems and component suppliers were up to three years before production, some six months before program approval. A consensus agreement between suppliers and Neon team members was signed up front by both parties, to define parameters for investment, design assumptions, conformity, cost, and weight of each component or system. Supplier representatives were full-time working members of the Neon development process. Between the suppliers and workers, Chrysler was able to push the production date forward — twice.

cutaway 1995 plymouth Neon

Boltz concluded, “The initial quality level of the Neon has exceeded our expectations. In fact, the quality levels are so high and the launch of the four-door so smooth, that we will begin producing the two-door in May 1994, about eight weeks earlier than planned. The launch of the Neon is the best in Chrysler’s history. Our customers can look forward to a vehicle that will exceed their expectations of how good a small car can really be.”

Other points of interest

Satellite Stamping Plant

Satellite fascia plant

Advance Manufacturing

Body-in-White

Paint

Trim, Chassis, Final Assembly

General Plant

There is more in the main first-generation Neon section which describes safety and environment advances. The Neon’s racing record is also covered in this site.

ALSO SEE: Using computers to design the Neon

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