BELVIDERE, Ill. -- The Chrysler group's assembly plant here in central Illinois now can build three vehicle platforms and four distinct upper bodies. Previously, the plant built only the Dodge Neon.
Chrysler spent $419 million overhauling the plant to gain manufacturing flexibility, which CEO Tom LaSorda says "is critical to our ability to compete."
This month, Chrysler began building the 2007 Dodge Caliber at its Belvidere, Ill., assembly plant. Production of the 2007 Jeep Compass and 2007 Jeep Patriot begins later this year. The three vehicles are based on the same platform.
The plant also could be a second source for front-wheel-drive models replacing the Dodge Stratus and the Chrysler Sebring if demand warrants, says Frank Ewasyshyn, Chrysler executive vice president of manufacturing.
Belvidere's new generation of small vehicles is front-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive. But simultaneous production of a rear-wheel-drive vehicle is possible, too, Ewasyshyn says.
The Belvidere plant will build 280,000 units a year on two shifts, he says. Second-shift production begins in March. That will bring total employment at the plant to 2,650 workers.
By May, Chrysler will decide if it needs a third shift, Ewasyshyn says. Volume of up to 400,000 units annually is possible with three shifts, he says. About 1,000 workers would be added.
Robots at work
Robots are critical to the plant's flexibility.
The Belvidere body shop houses 780 robots from Zurich, Switzerland-based supplier ABB Inc. About 400 robots were used to build the Neon.
Building as many as four models is possible because the robots can make tool changes every 45 seconds. That means the robots routinely can handle any one of four vehicles in any sequence every 45 seconds.
"It doesn't matter what the mix is," Ewasyshyn says. "It is a lot size of one."
Adding a new platform at the plant, such as the Sebring replacement, requires 12 months' lead time, he says.
Similar robotic body shops are slated for the company's Sterling Heights, Mich., assembly plant and the St. Louis South assembly plant. Sterling Heights will build the Sebring and the Stratus replacements. St. Louis South builds minivans.
About 100 production employees work in the Belvidere body shop, compared with about 150 when the Neon was built, says Cal Reeverts, the body shop center line manager.
Negotiations under way
Members of UAW Local 1268 at Belvidere use team assembly. The teams average six members and rotate assembly jobs.
"The people within Belvidere say we should have done this a long time ago," says Nate Gooden, UAW vice president. "The boredom and everything they have (had) on the job -- it's a different culture. You don't have to come to work every day and do the same job over and over again."
The UAW and the company are negotiating the number of job classifications at the plant, says Kurt Kauajecz, plant manager. Kauajecz says he expects the plant will operate with fewer classifications.
But Gooden says, "I don't expect we will lose that many classifications in this plant."