Chrysler plant eschews automation in favor of a unique hand-build assembly line.



Editor's note: On March 12, 2008, Chrysler LLC's Conner Avenue Assembly plant produced its 25,000th Dodge Viper. We're proud to say that ASSEMBLY magazine was there when the first few models rolled off the line! (You might have thought Chrysler would have sent us No. 25,000, but instead, it went to NASCAR driver Kurt Busch. Note to Chrysler CEO Robert Nardelli: We're not picky! We'd be perfectly content with No. 25,008 or even No. 25,013!) We thought you might enjoy reading our account of that first visit. This article was originally published in the May 1996 issue of  ASSEMBLY. The text of the article is as it originally appeared in the magazine. However, the original images were, regrettably, lost in the course of several office moves. ASSEMBLY thanks Year One Inc. and Chrysler LLC for these images.

Welcome to the snake pit. This is not your typical car assembly plant. You won't find rows of robots assembling Chrysler's Dodge Viper, nicknamed the “snake,” here at the Conner Avenue Assembly Plant (CAAP) in Detroit.

But flaunting conventional auto building wisdom-high-tech automation-CAAP is a showcase for manual assembly, a return to the hand-building days of automaking.

At CAAP, hands-on is the operating philosophy. Electrically powered hand tools, hoists and computerized test equipment are as high-tech as it gets.

The CAAP complex, opened in August 1995, is running at capacity, nine cars per day, building one model every 50 minutes from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays. Typically, a highly automated final assembly line turns out about a car a minute.

“Conner Avenue Assembly Plant represents Chrysler’s commitment to two key principles,” says Robert Eaton, company chairman and chief executive officer. “The first is to continue to develop vehicles with a strong focus and purpose. The second is to continue to develop and manufacture small volumes of vehicles profitably and efficiently.”

Originally built in 1966, the 345,000-square-foot plant occupies 27 acres. Last year Chrysler invested $17 million in the complex-a former Champion spark plug plant-to convert it to Viper production. Assembly began in October after initial production started in 1992 at the Mack Avenue plant, also in Detroit.

Production shut down from May to October for the move. As a result, output for the 1995 model year dropped to 1,577 units, compared to a record 3,086 for 1994. The 1995 sales total included 1,422 sold in the United States, 114 in Canada and 41 outside North America.

According to plant manager Howard Lewis, production of the 1996 RT/10 roadster model started with a build of about 700 units. Roadster production ceased in March as GTS coupe assembly began in April. Roadster production in 1997 will be concurrent on the same line.

In keeping with Bob Eaton’s key principles, the Prowler, Chrysler’s new “American street rod,” is set for production launch at CAAP in mid-1997. It will be largely hand built on a line alongside the Viper line.

CAAP’s annual production capacity is 3,600 Vipers and 4,800 Prowlers. In addition to the roadster and coupe models, the GTS-R is a $200,000 machine for professional racing in international events. The GTS-R has been hand built at the Chrysler Technology Center in Auburn Hills, MI, since November 1995. According to Frank Vaughn, Jr., launch coordinator, in the second quarter the GTS-R line will be moved to an assembly “white room” at CAAP for a build of 25 to 50 cars annually.


Back to Basics

Viper’s new home is about one-third the size of the Mack Avenue facility. “The smaller size has advantages,” says Vaughn. “The smaller facility actually lends to more efficient ways of doing things. For example, lack of space forces us to keep less inventory, both raw materials and finished product.”

“This is a real back-to-basics program,” Vaughn tells ASSEMBLY. “We don't have any of the high-tech tooling you see in a regular assembly plant. Our fixtures and tooling are basically very simple. For example, we use a lot of electric ratchet wrenches and screwdrivers.”

Minimal technology streamlines process management, Vaughn says. For example, instead of a robot, a craftsperson (all hourly workers have the same title) applies windshield primer with a small hand brush. Because the cars are assembled on the body side with bolts and rivets, there are no spot welders and no respot line.

Vaughn reports that a “fastener commonization program” was launched in 1995. Carried forward this year, it reduced fastener use significantly.

There are some concessions to high technology. They include electronically controlled electric motors for power tools. Electric tools were chosen to handle multiple predetermined torques for driving nuts and bolts.

According to Vaughn, other high-tech equipment includes a company-developed alignment machine, a “rolls” test that pushes the engine to 90 mph, computer-controlled headlight aim and computer measurement of electrical power required to slide windows in car doors.

Power to Employees

“Minimal supervision and a self-directed workforce are what we strive to maintain and encourage,” Vaughn says.

Employee empowerment through self-directed work teams is key to what Vaughn calls the “Viper experience.” CAAP was the first test bed for employee empowerment at Chrysler. “We have seen it spread to other assembly plants, as well as to administrative ranks where it is used on platform teams and other assembly-plant teams,” he says.

Vaughn recalls the “best of the best” of both hourly and salaried workers were selected for Viper's startup. From applicants that underwent in-depth interviews, “A core group of men and women were chosen at the engineering level to develop this car. Then another group of salaried and hourly people were selected to bring it to production,” he says.

“The Viper experience,” he says, “is to not get bogged down in traditional processes or paperwork. All workers are encouraged to be free-thinking and to get creative.” For example, a craftsperson may call a product engineer or supplier directly to resolve a problem.

The Viper team is made up of a production shift of about 100 persons. Workers perform operations individually and in self-directed two-, three- or four-person teams. In addition to assembly, workers are assigned to material handling and quality functions. The workforce averages 19 years of service.

Any team member can pull a car off the line to check a quality issue, Vaughn says. In that case, a group walk-around decides if a car needs “finessing.”

Members of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 212 elect team leaders from their ranks for the chassis, final assembly and assessment areas. Two craft managers and a product engineer also staff the chassis and final assembly areas.

In addition to a monthly “town hall” meeting for all team members, craft managers meet daily with team leaders and members for general updates.

Typically, training is handled by craftspeople. “The most experienced, most knowledgeable person will conduct a training session. Topics have included electrical system troubleshooting, handling hazardous waste and computer skills,” Vaughn says.

Tracking the Snake

The 720-foot RT/10 and GTS line includes 31 workstations. Cars are assembled in these key groups of operations: 
* Instrument panel. At this first stop on the line, the instrument panel is attached to the vehicle’s frame at the correct height. An electrical test ensures that controls-radio, temperature, gauges-are operational and accurate. Rear axles, along with fuel and brake lines, are installed before the instrument panel is sealed to the frame. 
* Suspension. The entire suspension system is made of aluminum. Four-wheel disc brakes and coil-over shocks are installed before the radiator, engine and exhaust system are assembled to the chassis frame.
* Alignment. A four-wheel alignment system, designed and built for the Viper, aligns each car to within 0.02 degrees of variance (equal to five human hairs). Interestingly, the Viper is aligned by its rotors instead of its wheels, as are most other vehicles. After alignment, wheels and tires are installed.
* Roll-test room. The Viper’s engine is started for the first time outside the roll-test room. The vehicle is secured in a stationary position in the roll-test room and tested at 90 mph. All six gears are tested, along with the vehicle's ability to brake and go into reverse. 
* Rear assembly. The car’s rear structure has been completed at this point. Door surrounds, quarter panels, trunk and sport cap are installed. Body panels are made of resin transfer molding; the hood is made of a sheet molding compound.
* Interior. Carpeting, seats, quarter trim panels and rear bulkhead are installed with rear seat bulkhead, center console and bezel. Starting with the GTS coupe, all Vipers will include dual air bags. 
* Headlamp and fascia assembly. Front and rear fascias, aluminum exhaust covers and headlamps are installed.
* Headlight aim test. A computer with two camera lenses ensures headlight alignment. A level inside each headlight allows the driver to check the lamp's aim at a glance. After buffing and polishing, and a 22-mile test drive, each car is prepared for shipping in a six-unit enclosed carrier.

Debut of the Coupe

In March, CAAP’s launch team for the coupe was working with craftspersons from chassis, final assembly and assessment areas to transition production from the roadster to the coupe model. Skilled trades set up the plant for coupe production. Launch of coupe assembly immediately followed roadster build out.

C1 coupes, “tryout” cars for the manufacturing process, were completed over the Christmas holidays. Then 16 prevolume production coupes (PVPs) were completed on the line. Most major production changes for the coupe occurred on the final assembly line.

Final operations for the first six PVPs were completed on a layout plate to check tooling, fixtures and assembly processes. The remaining 11 PVPs were completed on the final assembly line after new fixtures, assembly tools and overhead lifts and hoists were installed.

Two-thirds of the coupe’s first-year production run has been presold to roadster owners. Cost is $73,030 including base price of $66,000, $3,730 luxury tax, $2,600 gas guzzler tax and $700 destination charge.

The 1996 GTS coupe will pace this year’s Indianapolis 500. Driving will be Robert A. Lutz, Chrysler’s president and chief operating officer, an accomplished rally driver.

A 450-horsepower V-10 with 488 ft-lb of torque, and a six-speed manual transmission, gets the GTS to 60 mph in less than 4.5 seconds and to a top speed of 185 mph.

Viper Visions

“With the success of the RT/10, some were concerned that evolutionary changes might detract from the powerful image established on day one,” says Martin R. Levine, general manager of the Dodge Car and Truck Div.

“The original Viper remains alive and well and we plan on keeping it that way.” He adds that 1996 roadsters feature new color schemes, “At least one has a side emblem that takes a poke at what initially looks like a prancing red horse.”

Vaughn adds that he expects an unspecified “refreshening” of the Viper to maintain driver interest.

Partnering Pays Off

A Chrysler-UAW quality improvement partnership streamlined assembly of the Viper chassis toebox area.

In a process redesign implemented in March, a new carousel fixture replaced several subassembly fixtures and the work area was moved closer to the chassis assembly line.

Toebox was selected for revamping as the plant’s learning line-a small work area used as a model for large-scale process changes-under the company’s Chrysler Operating System (COS). COS is a tool of Product Quality Improvement Partnership (PQIP), a joint Chrysler-UAW program started in 1980 to reduce cost and improve product quality and work processes.

According to Guy Wusenich, manufacturing planning coordinator, the toebox area was small enough to isolate for learning purposes but large enough to show how COS can improve a manufacturing process. “Toebox assembly was an area that we knew had a few issues that we could address by applying COS,” Wusenich says. The makeover started with a three-day February workshop at the plant to use COS principles to redesign the work area. The workshop’s objective was to design a work area layout to reduce handling, work in process and excessive stock and to implement a “pull system”-a system that places a new assembly on a line’s starting point only after a completed assembly is pulled off the back end.

Workshop participants included Wusenich; Paulette McDonald, COS facilitator, Maureen Rose, COS specialist; and plant engineers, managers and chassis craftspersons.

Formerly, toebox units were handled six times before being installed on the chassis frame. Rather than move each toebox from fixture to fixture, the new system’s carousel fixture will rotate each toebox through several stages of subassembly. Wusenich estimates handling will be reduced 50 percent to three times per unit, saving on in-system damage.

Additionally, work in process will be reduced from 10 to six units, freeing up floor space in the area. Total work area will be reduced with the new layout. New stock containers and shelves are expected to cut stock in the workstation and worker walking and reaching to obtain stock.

According to Vaughn, CAAP’s PQIP steering committee is developing guidelines to implement additional improvement programs. An awards program is planned to recognize contributors to the PQIP efforts.