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Building the LH Models (With Particular Emphasis on the LHS & 300M)

The Chrysler brand is increasingly about cars. And the latest launch in the Bramalea assembly plant—the LHS and the 300M models—indicate that the vehicle manufacturer is even serious about taking on the luxury brands, both in this part of the world and elsewhere.

Every Little Thing Is Important

There are 454 work stations in the Chrysler Bramalea Assembly Plant, the facility, located outside Toronto, where the vehicle manufacturer produces its line-up of what are commonly known as the "LH" cars—the Dodge Intrepid, and the Chrysler Concorde, LHS, and 300M. The work station in question here are not those of the computer variety—although it is worth noting that the LH lineup was extensively designed, processed, and produced in the digital domain prior to the bending and welding of metal and the insertion and attachment of components—but of the type that the assembly personnel go to on a regular basis to access parts and tools.

Prior to the September 1997 launch of the first of the '98 vehicles, all 454 work stations were redesigned. This means that flow racks and tilt stands were implemented. The container size and number of units (parts) held were analyzed and changed as needed. The operator walk time and distance were measured and appropriately minimized. An electronic kanban system was established.

Input not only came from the people who actually do the work, but a dedicated ergonomist was added to the staff to help assure that changes were made in an effective manner.

The importance of the changes to the work stations—which could be overshadowed by such things as the implementation of new equipment in the stamping department to process the aluminum hoods being used for the Concorde and LHS models, or the waterborne paint system, or the $1.3-million upgrade to the vehicle evaluation track—cannot be overestimated. Realize that in the assembly of one of the vehicles there are 2,839 end items involved. These range from the instrument panel to the seats, from the wheels to wiring harnesses. And plenty in between.

It is the effective and efficient putting together of all of these parts that makes all the difference in the quality of the vehicles.

The people at Bramalea were involved early in the vehicle program: two years prior to launch, a point in time when, not all that long ago, designers and engineers were the only people involved. Some 600 of the Bramalea folks were involved in the Pilot Program that was conducted at the Chrysler Technology Center in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Every employee was given training for the new vehicles: more than 250,000 hours of classroom and hands-on time were racked up.

Evidently, all of this is paying off, because in early April it was announced that a third shift is being added at Bramalea. It will go on line in July '98. It translates into the addition of some 1,000 jobs to a current staff of 3,800. It will result in the addition of 70,000 to plant capacity, bringing the annual total to 350,000 units.

Making it easier can make it better. Which is what they are aiming to do in Bramalea.

Digital All the Way

The use of digital technology to develop the 1998/99 LH vehicles was, in a word, extensive. The vehicle styling began as a 3D model. Once approved, the designers and engineers set to work modeling the entire vehicle—interior and exterior—on CATIA. But this wasn't simply a design study tool. The data generated was used throughout not only the development of the product design and engineering optimization (as in making sure that all of the parts looked good, fit together and, if functional, work in an optimal manner), but to implement better manufacturing processes.

Consider the decklid. The part design was released to manufacturing. It, in turn, used the 3D CAD solid model to simulate the stamping process. Analysis was performed of the blank nesting (e.g., how big does the blank need to be to get the part? What is the best nesting arrangement as related to scrap minimization?). The model was used for draw die development, with the objective of minimizing the number of dies/hits to produce the part. This went all the way through to examining the interaction between the blank and die surface.

Die design was performed using a parametric design tool within CATIA called VAMOS. One of the things used to facilitate rapid die development at Chrysler is a computer-based library of standard parts and steels, thereby eliminating the need to spend time on the proverbial reinvention of the wheel. The manufacturing engineers know that there are several parts of a die that are unlikely to change (think of clamps and related details), so standardization within the system leads to more expedient die design. The CATIA model of the die—which is tested within the digital world—is subsequently used to provide the input for the CNC program used to actually machine the die.

Since it is important to be assured that the stamping process as laid out will do the job, a computer model of the line—including all of the material handling—was generated and operated. This simulation permitted the process engineers to make adjustments in the digital space, which is a whole lot easier then making it in real world conditions...only to discover that more modifications are necessary.

Not only was first-time build facilitated through the use of computer modeling, but getting to that point was done more quickly than had been done on Chrysler's previous full-size program: total product development for the first-generation LH required 39 months; this program needed 31 months.

Smart. Very Smart.

The latest vehicles in the LH lineup—which John H.O. Sloan, Vehicle Planning Executive, Large Car Operations, says fit into the "near-luxury class"—are the 1999 LHS and the 300M. They are being offered with highly competitive base prices: $28,895 for the 300M; $28,995 for the LHS. The 300M competitors include the Lexus ES300, Infiniti I30, Audi A4, Acura TL, and Cadillac Catera. The LHS competitors include the Oldsmobile Aurora, Lincoln Continental, and Buick Park Avenue.

Know that the number of options available is, by any measure, small: sunroof, chrome wheels, and a 320-W Infinity audio system for both cars; a performance package (different brakes, tires and steering/suspension setup) for the 300M. (Gratuitous car review comment: Anyone who is buying the 300M ought to opt for this package—it makes a HUGE, positive difference in ride and handling. In addition to which, the engine controller on the so-called "European" package isn't speed limited, so the top end is on the order of 150 mph—not that any of you would ever disobey posted speed limits, of course.)

So how does the company offer cars chock-a-block full of features at competitive prices—while, of course, still making a margin?

"Smart engineering. Smart buying. Smart manufacturing," answers Chrysler president, Tom Stallkamp, smartly.

The smart engineering is based on cross-functional platform teams that utilize the aforementioned CATIA. Not only are the walls of the functional silos that existed within Chrysler (and which continue to exist in too many organizations) breached, but the silos—to the extent that they continue to exist—are electronically networked for information sharing.

LHS

Smart buying—and remember that Stallkamp, before being appointed president on January 1, 1998, was executive vice president-Procurement and Supply and general manager-Large Car Operations, so he knows more than a little something about buying (and about the Large Car program, of which the LH models are it)—is based on a couple of things. One is Chrysler's efforts to establish long-term relationships with its suppliers, which provides the suppliers with a better horizon with regard to capacity planning and investment. Chrysler is buying multiple modules for this lineup of cars—such as braking modules from ITT Automotive, roof panels from Textron Automotive, and rear suspension modules from Magna. The modules and part commonalities among the four cars on the platform mean the company gains a cost advantage through part consolidation and volume purchasing.

With regard to smart manufacturing, Stallkamp points out, there is a benefit to having fairly consistent content on the LHS and 300M: "It is easier for the workers when the cars are fully equipped, rather than having to figure out, every fourth car or so, what's needed."

"The workforce at Bramalea is first-rate," Stallkamp states, noting that when the '97 Concorde and Vision models went out of production in the plant, they had the highest quality vehicles build rating of all Chrysler vehicles.

Also related to manufacturing, Stallkamp points out that by running four models through the single facility, the corporation is better able to capitalize on its fixed assets (which the addition of a third shift extends).


Aluminum hood assembly

Both the LHS and Concorde models feature aluminum hood assemblies. This is a first high-volume use of aluminum for hoods within Chrysler (the Prowler, of course, is an aluminum-intensive vehicle--but it is a low-volume product). To accommodate both aluminum and steel, the E-press line at Bramalea was retrofitted, including the addition of a new blank feeder and the modification of the scrap-handling system so the two materials are separated.

Learning line

Polyurethane (PUR) foam is used in various body cavities to minimize noise levels and to serve as a seal against dust and moisture. This is a replacement for baffling material that had been previously used. In order to assure that the workers at the plant could apply the material under real-world conditions, a learning line was setup in the factory, as indicated by the checkerboard pattern on the floor.

Cutaway of the 300M

Extensive use of CATIA--for both design and manufacturing applications—helped make the entire product development time a quick 31 months. Shown here is a cutaway of the 300M.