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Belvidere Takes Chrysler Flexibility up a Notch

A few years ago, former Chrysler boss Dieter Zetsche made a bold prediction: Chrysler would become among the most efficient auto manufacturers by 2010.

A few years ago, former Chrysler boss Dieter Zetsche made a bold prediction: Chrysler would become among the most efficient auto manufacturers by 2010. Pretty startling, since efficiency leader Toyota continues to maintain a nearly 10 man-hour advantage over Chrysler and presses on with new efficiency advancements at its own plants throughout the globe. Still, Chrysler is sticking to the plan and the latest iteration of its manufacturing prowess is on display in Belvidere, IL, home of the C-segment platform vehicles—Dodge Caliber, Jeep Compass and Jeep Patriot—jointly developed with former equity partner Mitsubishi. The facility has the capability of building up to three models, along with test build for a fourth. Flexible tooling accommodates front-, rear- or all-wheel drivetrain configurations and is capable of handling overflow production of Chrysler’s upcoming D-segment vehicles—replacements for the Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Stratus—which go into production at their lead plant in Sterling Heights, MI, later this year.

As part of the four-month, $419-million upgrade plan (the last Dodge Neon rolled off the assembly line in September 2005), Chrysler gutted the body shop and installed more than 780 new ABB robots that are fitted with quick-change end effectors, not the typical dedicated tooling often found in assembly plants. Changes can be performed in as little as 45 seconds. Frank Ewasyshyn, Chrysler’s executive vice president of manufacturing, said the extensive use of robotics reduced body shop investment by as much as 33%, or upwards of $82.5 million, reducing staffing by as much as 10%. While the underbody, front rails and suspension components are shared between all three of the C-Segment vehicles, body sheet metal is extensively differentiated, including unique T-rails and doors. The body shop went through extensive changes, although the paint shop was left intact, with the exception of a few technology upgrades to the paint application system.

On the material handling side, Chrysler joined with minority-supplier TDS/US to develop a 500,000-ft.2 parts sequencing center where modules are sub-assembled and delivered to the plant floor via a tunnel, saving the automaker as much as 12% per year compared with traditional material flow models. TDS is responsible for making sure the plant maintains optimum part stock levels, along with component transportation needs.

One of the key manufacturing innovations at the plant is the new door hemming station, where robots use rollers to seal the inner and outer door pieces together. Traditionally, door hemming would be done using dedicated presses, limiting door production to one specific design at a time, since different doors would require time-consuming die changes. The new cell includes dedicated anvils, which easily slide in and out of place, for each door design. Once the pieces are secured on the anvil the roller moves along the door flange, sealing the inner and outer panels together. The process, which has been used in low-volume production in the past (including the Ford GT), takes as little as 60 seconds to complete.

If the Caliber and Compass prove to be hits with consumers, Ewasyshyn predicted a third-shift may be added to the plant. It would be the first time the plant, which began producing the Plymouth Fury and Dodge Monaco in 1965, has ever run on a 24-hour operating pattern. “The facility is structured in such a way that it can handle a third shift,” he said. “We know what has to be done to make that happen.”—KMK