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Chrysler LH: New Ways to Design and Manufacture Cars

The LH cars were the first Chrysler vehicles to be built using cross-functional teams, benchmarking of best-in-class cars for each attribute, and early factory, worker, and supplier involvement. In 1992, Chrysler Corporation wanted the world to know how much the company had changed.

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The LH cars (Dodge Intrepid, Chrysler Concorde, Eagle Vision, and Chrysler New Yorker, later to be joined by the LHS and 300M) put the "new" Chrysler Corporation on the map. A New York Times article on the cars more than doubled the stock price. This was the company's final golden age; while sales did not always increase, all the new car lines were profitable, including the Neon, the sole profitable American small cars.

Production quality of the LH series was high; most failures were on purchased components and the transmissions, which were designed before the LH was created.

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For the first time in many years, quality goals were present from the beginning of the project onwards - as Director of Manufacturing Engineering for the LH Platform Team John P. Hinckley said, quality goals were set up even before the car became the LH - when it was called the Liberty Project, and the engine layout was still east-west.

There were three major plants involved:

  • The Bramalea Assembly Plant in Ontario, later renamed to Brampton. Chrysler invested $600 million into revamping the plant and added a new satellite stamping facility.
  • The Trenton Engine Plant in Michigan, which built the engines.
  • The Kokomo Transmission Plant in Indiana, which made the transmissions.

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To help increase production quality, the company followed a slower than usual launch curve, taking months to reach full production of around 500 cars per shift, per day; the plant's 3,000 workers, by then, had logged around 900,000 hours of pre-production training in both classroom and hands-on environments. The plant itself could produce 65 cars per hour, and was around 35% smaller than most plants that could build at that speed.


One part of Bramalea's efficiency was the pallet - a long metal template, which simulated the positioning of chassis components to the car's underbody. The system takes up around a quarter of the chassis assembly area's floor space.

The pallet moves along a rectangular loop as components, from engine to brakes, were placed on it, one by one; once all components are on, the brake system was filled and tested, and the pallet was hydraulically raised to meet the underside of a waiting car body.

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The system cuts worker fatigue and errors, because most work is done at eye level; there were only six overhead stations, compared with 40 for past systems.

Some other issues were resolved by bringing plant workers into the process relatively early; they started making pilot cars on-site in November 1991. Past Chrysler practice had pilots done just 22 weeks before launch; with the LH, workers were observing the process by 95 weeks, and by 75 weeks, they were participating. One year ahead of production, the pre-production cars were all being made by Bramalea employees. In addition, for the first time at Chrysler, the 16-week and final level pre-production cars (C-I pilots) were built on the line, at the plant.

Customer involvement

G. Glenn Gardner, general manager of large car platform engineering, had some examples of how bringing customers in helped the program. For example, research showed that Japanese cars had a reputation for being more responsive, but performance testing showed that Chrysler was beating the Japanese in 0-60 runs and passing time, in some cases with better fuel economy. They turned to ride-and-drive sessions with potential customers to see why there was a reputation gap:

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. ... 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."
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LH engineers changed the throttle response curve, so more throttle response was built into the first three-fourths of the throttle. That didn't increase full throttle acceleration, but it did make the car feel more responsive. Chrysler changed its criteria for launch measurements to two-second distance at part-throttle.

LH final acceleration times were high for their 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.

Anectdotes and examples of Chrysler's engineering process

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.

Building the new, technologically advanced 3.5 liter V6 and fully adaptive 42LE automatic in a sharply abbreviated timeline was challenging. (The 3.5 liter V6 was machined on its own line at Trenton, but assembled on the same line as the 3.3 and 3.8 liter V6 engines.)

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Accoring to Howard B. Padgham, executive engineer of powertrain engineering for the platform team, they quickly identified major suppliers and set up engineering teams that were headed by people from the plants, and included people from Engineering, tool suppliers, and Purchasing, which met every two weeks during the engine program.
Powertrain machine tool suppliers were given the business up front, with price negotiated later. They also had to show, at their own facilities, that their machinery was capable of the task before it was shipped to Chrysler plants - and afterwards. x

Padgham said, "It was an act of faith on all sides... [but] we had just 39 months from start to finish, and it clearly demanded new ways of doing business... the 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."

Working out issues early meant that there were no costly last-minute changes; and, according to Padgham, there were no late surprises. The teams met their due dates.

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The transaxle (front wheel drive transmission/axle assembly) was also run far in advance, with a trial run one full year ahead of production.
Padgham said, "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 launched on April 1.

Late cradles

Because of the industry consolidation in Detroit, one firm decided to withdraw its engineering group and consolidate it at company headquarters in Milwaukee, though the LH Team was anxiously waiting for promised engine cradles, targeted for the earliest LH prototype vehicles - but the movers packed the 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 in the product plan from the outset. It was the first Chrysler product with an electronic PRNDL.

Just $1 per car was budgeted, but engineering research showed it would cost up to $6.80. The team decided to revert to a mechanical PRNDL, but one young engineer, on his own, studied all the Japanese and European cars he could find to figure out how they did it.

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Gardner reported that he realized Chrysler was actually adding electronics to take a signal from the transmission and send it elsewhere; but the transmission was electronically controlled, and all they really needed to do was use the signal that was already there. The new approach, as implemented, cost less than the original $1 per car - indeed, less than the mechanical PRNDL.

Transmission routing

The 1993 LH cars had two cabin configurations: a five-passenger setup with a center-mounted floor shift, and a six-passenger bench seat setup with a column-mounted shifter.

The original five-passenger cabin had a cable from the shifter to the transmission under the floor pan, while the column-mounted shifter cable went through a hole in the firewall. The under-car cable routing could have caused corrosion issues; and having both added to manufacturing complexity.One engineer suggested rerouting the floor-mounted cable so it went along the floor tunnel, up the firewall, and out the same exit as the column-mounted shifter. That simplified the process, and prevented corrosion.

Floor consoles had already been designed, but the LH engineers still made it happen. Gardner said it also saved money, and that "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 engine. Jim DeKeyser, manager of Chrysler's Trenton Engine Plant, wrote a letter to Gardner, which included:

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. DeKeyser could have taken that money and put it into his plants profits, to boost his bonus or career prospect, but gave it to the team to keep the LH on target.

In another case, the Bramalea assembly group volunteered to transfer some of its investment money to the stamping plant budget to finish some over-target tooling. Gardner said, "That would have been unheard of in this corporation a few years ago."

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

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

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