GRAZ, Austria - As DaimlerChrysler AG embarks on the momentous task of merging its trans-Atlantic cultures, many skeptics doubt the company can pull it off.
But in an assembly plant here near the foothills of the Alps, Germans and Americans say they are proving the doubters wrong.
Engineers from both sides of the Atlantic were given just seven months to build Jeeps and Mercedes-Benz sport-utilities in the same plant and, wherever possible, on the same conveyor line.
They endured long hours of planning, red-eye plane flights and short tempers. But the two sides have shrugged off differences and, so far at least, are making it work. They are on schedule to build two disparate sport-utilities here: the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Mercedes-Benz ML320.
A GOOD MIDWIFE
The huge job is being midwifed by a familiar party, making it an unusual three-way partnership. The assembly plant here is operated by Steyr-Daimler-Puch Fahr-zeugtechnik, a unit of Canada's Magna International Inc., a longtime supplier to the former Chrysler Corp. and Daimler-Benz AG.
Moreover, Steyr has been building Grand Cherokees here since 1994. Steyr also builds the Mercedes-Benz Gelaendewagen sport-utility and the 4x4 E class here in an adjoining plant.
'So it's been much easier for us,' said Gerhard Stiegler, Steyr's manager of Jeep production planning. 'We have a long tradition with both companies. We know our partners well.'
Nevertheless, 'it's the most challenging project I've ever had in my life,' he said.
Production of the new Grand Cherokee, redesigned for 1999, began here Jan. 11. M-class production is scheduled to follow May 3.
When the parties faced an immediate technical problem, it was resolved quickly, Stiegler said.
For example, they had to design a carrier for the conveyor system that would hold three different body types: the Grand Cherokee, the M class without its frame and the M class with its frame. They sought help from a local contractor, and they adapted a design that Chrysler had been using, Stiegler said.
It is tricky enough putting two different vehicles on the same line. For example, the Grand Cherokee has a unibody, and the M class has a body on frame. But the team also has to wrestle with brand purity.
DaimlerChrysler is determined to maintain the sanctity of its brands. Customers must continue to view Mercedes as the ultimate in performance and luxury.
So assembling the Grand Cherokee and the M class in the same plant, and often on the same conveyor line, seems to defy the company's own rules.
But safeguards are being taken to ensure that the M class that leaves this plant is the same as the M class assembled in Vance, Ala., said Dieter Zetsche, the DaimlerChrysler management board member in charge of Mercedes-Benz sales and marketing.
For instance, the companies devised the 'take-off station.' Mercedes-Benz wanted to be able to take an M-class body off the line early in the assembly process to check all critical measurements, said Gary Cash, a project manager at the plant representing Jeep.
But a take-off station in the body shop was not part of Grand Cherokee assembly plans, he said. The timing of the project was favorable. Had the new Grand Cherokee assembly line already been in place, it would have been costly to rip it apart and build in the take-off station, Cash said.
So American and German manufacturing engineers worked it into the plans. A bonus: The Grand Cherokee may use the station, too.
Brand sanctity is maintained in other ways, too. Color coding will help assembly-line workers grab the correct tools. A blue tool will be used for the M class, a green tool for the Grand Cherokee.
Some parts and components will be delivered to the plant by suppliers in color-coded containers to prevent any similar parts from ending up on the wrong vehicle.
Also, common tooling will be programmed to recognize whether it is working on the Grand Chero-kee or the M class.
Four parties were thrown together on this project: Steyr; Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc., which assembles the M class in Alabama; and separate parties from DaimlerChryslerAG in Stuttgart, Germany, and Auburn Hills, Mich.
'Working together, depending on what the issues were, we would create smaller focus teams that could be made up of one or all four of those groups,' said Shamel Rushwin, DaimlerChrysler senior vice president of international manufacturing in Auburn Hills.
The project is the first opportunity for DaimlerChrysler to bring manufacturing people from each side together 'in a real-life situation,' Cash said.
Before any work could begin on the assembly line, the parties had to determine how to speak to one another electronically. They all used different computers.
This was no simple fix.
'We ended up flying our information system people over from the States, and Daimler-Benz people over from Stuttgart and Alabama to work with the Steyr people,' Cash said.
DaimlerChrysler turned to Steyr for help because the Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama could not meet the strong demand for the M class. Steyr uses about 1,400 workers to build the Grand Cherokee. It will add 550 workers to accommodate the M-class production in May.
Steyr is under contract to build 75,000 M-class sport-utilities in a 36-month period. Steyr will assemble 65,000 Grand Cherokees annually here through 2004.
By using a Steyr factory, Chrysler and Daimler-Benz AG were able to begin planning Jeep and M-class production even before they consummated their historic merger on Nov. 17.
Construction of the new assembly line began shortly after the final 1998 Grand Cherokee was assembled here Oct. 23.
So far, each party has focused on the issues, not personalities, said Dennis Pawley, executive vice president of manufacturing at DaimlerChrysler in Auburn Hills.
Pawley sees this project in two ways. Building the sport-utilities under one roof, and on the same line whenever possible, will save the new company $300 million. The alternative was building two separate assembly lines, he said.
The project also brought the two cultures together.
'I think some really good, close relationships have developed out of it and a lot of respect for each other.' Pawley said.
He added: 'There were long hours and a lot of gnashing of teeth. People are human. Did tempers ever flare going through stuff like this? Hell, yes. But did it slow down the process? No. Did we reach the right decisions? Yeah. There was no 'I'm an American, and I know more than you.''