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How The Chrysler Group's Flexibility Strategy Is Putting New Products On The Road

The strategy being used by The Chrysler Group in terms of rolling out two of its new bigger products—one of which is really BIG—is indicative of the overall direction that the company is taking in its operations: Doing more with if not exactly less, then at least with the same.

The strategy being used by The Chrysler Group in terms of rolling out two of its new bigger products—one of which is really BIG—is indicative of the overall direction that the company is taking in its operations: Doing more with if not exactly less, then at least with the same. Case in point: the new Jeep Commander. The Commander is being built at the Jefferson North Assembly Plant in Detroit (yes, this assembly plant is physically within the city limits, which makes it a unique facility if for no other reason than that), the plant in which the Jeep Grand Cherokee has been built since 1992. Heretofore, the Grand Cherokee was the only vehicle built in that plant. To prepare for the current-generation Grand Cherokee, which was launched as an ’05 model (see: The What & How Of Being The '05 Jeep Grand Cherokee), Chrysler spent $241-million in the plant, of which some $104-million was to prepare the facility for the Commander.

Although the Commander is based on the Grand Cherokee platform, the vehicle, which includes three rows of seats, is not precisely the same. For example, it is two inches longer (overall length: 188.5 in), which necessitated changes on the line (both run down the same line as needed, which is predicated on what they’re calling “Smart Manufacturing,” which is essentially a team-based approach to manufacturing and problem solving; Smart Manufacturing is made possible in large part by a flexible work rules and enhanced training for the UAW-represented employees in the plant [locals 7, 889, and 412]). Changes to the assembly line accounted for about $20 million of the total. As mentioned, the Commander has three rows of seats unlike the two in the Grand Cherokee, so there needed to be some additional ergonomic lift devices installed in order to assist the workers with placing the seats within the vehicle. There is a pair of skylights over the second row of seats (in addition to the sunroof for the front row), which called for the implementation of additional robots on the line. Compared with the Grand Cherokee, the roof line, starting at the second row of seats, is raised 3.15 in., which is another variation. In total, some $25-million were spent on robots for the Jeep Commander production at Jefferson North. There are certainly differences between the Grand Cherokee and Commander as regards elements from the windshield to the instrument panels, but there are similarities in things like powertrains (there are engine choices including a 3.7-liter V6, a 4.7-liter V8, and a 5.7-liter hemi; there are two transmissions, both five-speed automatics, one for the V8 models and one for the V6; there are three drive systems: Quadra-Trac I, Quadra-Trac II, and Quadra-Drive II, and two transfer cases).

One interesting aspect of this early designation of the plant as the site for the additional vehicle in the Jeep lineup is that by preparing the plant for the Grand Cherokee and the Commander at the same time, they were able to perform retooling in the plant a single time rather than twice. Additionally, the later launch of the Commander provided eight months’ worth of opportunity to prepare for full production of the vehicle, which officially commenced in July. (It’s worth noting that there is still another vehicle that will go into production at Jefferson North: in November they will be building the SRT8 version of the Grand Cherokee, too.)

All of which is to say that there is planned use of flexibility within the operations.

Which brings us to the second vehicle, the Dodge Mega Cab. This vehicle is produced at the Chrysler Group Saltillo Assembly Plant in Coahuila, Mexico. That plant also builds the Dodge Ram Heavy Duty 2500 and 3500 models, the Dodge Ram Power Wagon (see Chrysler Group Goes To Extremes ), and the Dodge Ram SRT10 (see RAM SRT-10: Just Try To Wipe That Stupid Grin Off Of Your Face). And now the ’06 Mega Cab, after the investment of approximately $210-million in the plant to achieve this sort of capability—in addition to which there was additional training of the people in the plant so as to take advantage of the new equipment and to assure production quality. As Frank Ewasyshyn, executive vice president-Manufacturing, Chrysler Group, understates it: “The ability to build three different truck bodies in multiple variations”—realize that the aforementioned products include regular cabs and quad cabs, 4 x 4s and 4 x 2s, and an array of different engines and transmissions—“in one plant gives us the flexibility to adjust production to meet market demand.” Similar to the case at Jefferson North: If they want it, they will build it. There’s something economically beneficial about flexibility for vehicle manufacturers.

The Mega Cab, as its name indicates, has a giant cab, a cab that is said to be the biggest in the business: 111.1-in. long, 143.2-ft3. What they’ve essentially done is take the Ram 2500 Quad Cab long-box model, which has a 160.5-in. wheelbase, and then put a 6-ft, 3-in. box on the heavy-duty frame rather than the 8-ft box that is on the 2500. Consequently, this provided the additional 20 in. that were deployed in the cab. Which then provides all manner of interior spaciousness and amenities (e.g., there are reclining rear seats: from 22 to 37°). There is complexity involved in the production of the Mega Cab, as it is available as a 1500, 2500 or 3500 model, and within each of those categories there are two trim levels (SLT and Laramie) and the possibility of a 4 x 2 or 4 x 4 setup, which means that there are two different front suspensions (standard independent on two-wheel-drive models and a rigid-beam axle for the 4 x 4). While the rear suspensions are common across the 1500, 2500 and 3500, the first two have two-stage springs in the rear while the 3500 has three-stage. In addition to which, there is a standard 5.7-liter HEMI V8 for the 1500 and 2500 and five-speed automatic transmission in both. . .but the 2500 can be equipped with an optional 5.9-liter Cummins Turbo Diesel and a standard six-speed manual or optional automatic. The 3500 comes with the Cummins as standard and can be equipped with an optional automatic. And this doesn’t even get into the available options, ranging from sunroofs to high-output audio to 17-in. chrome-clad aluminum wheels.

All of which is to say that while there is a high degree of flexibility and commonality among the trucks built in Saltillo, there is still a tremendous amount of variety that must be accommodated. While some might say that the Mega Cab might be a niche vehicle, Brad Pinter, Dodge Ram brand manager points out that there are over two-million full-sized trucks being sold annually, which is up 20% over the past five years, and that within that truck segment, crew cabs are the fastest growing segment, from 5% five years ago to 40% today. Clearly, the Chrysler Group is ready to take on as much of that market as it can.