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Auto shop finds flaws before customers do

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Auto shop finds flaws before customers do

Chrysler service clinic works out bugs on vehicles before they reach full production

July 30, 2007



Lionel Chestnut calls himself the Motor Doctor, and his clinic is the front line in a new effort by Chrysler to improve the quality of its vehicles.

His garage in Auburn Hills, a few blocks south of Chrysler headquarters, services about 70 cars and trucks a day for about 15,000 Detroit-area customers.

The customers are not your typical drivers. They are Chrysler workers driving company-owned vehicles -- and they are not getting your typical oil change.

Chestnut manages the service area of Chrysler's product quality research center, where the vehicles are poked and prodded to see how they live up to real-world challenges.

The fleet is full of vehicles that have yet to go into full production, or are new models just hitting the streets.

Chestnut's team's findings are sometimes the first indication of possible problems in preproduction or new vehicles.

The company has been hit hard by marks against its quality. J.D. Power and Associates' annual study of new-vehicle quality, an independent benchmark that compares all carmakers, has ranked Chrysler low. The automaker had the largest number of recalls among U.S. automakers last year.

"We're obviously disappointed by our performance," said James Kos, Chrysler director of corporate quality. "I think that everyone has a heightened sensitivity to those types of issues and an urgency to make sure that we can identify them and communicate them back to the appropriate people."

To combat the perception of poor quality, Chrysler has been going into overdrive. Last week it announced a lifetime warranty on engines, transmissions and drive systems for most of its new vehicles.

Earlier this year, it began implementing a new design process in which engineers work to find potential problems and solve them before they are found by the customer.

For other automakers, this is old hat. But for Chrysler, it is a cultural change.

"We used to be really good and had to be really good at putting out fires," said Chrysler's Sam Locricchio. "Let's face it, 10 years ago -- I'd even hazard to say that six years ago -- we had" quality "issues. And we had to fix them quickly. That was where all of our attention was going. Now those 'oh my god' moments ... have turned into, 'let's check out that horn.' "

Chestnut runs a mock dealership service area that mirrors what a Chrysler owner might experience at a real service center.

"We're able to stop the repair process at any time we wish and understand what the problem is with that vehicle or what the customer complaint is," he said.

Sometimes it is an expectation issue. "We had issues on minivans with juice box holders," he said. "We tried to let them know that, hey, we had a customer who was not happy. We need to understand that and see if we need to make any design changes."

Chestnut's crew takes the problems, complaints and other things workers notice and report to engineers, and can address the issues before the vehicle goes into full production.

The Chrysler minivans to hit the showroom floors in coming weeks will have cup holders that accommodate juice boxes.

Another issue before Chrysler geared up production of the new minivan came up while Chestnut was looking at an internal mirror that allows drivers to see what their children are doing in the rear seats. He thought the mirror was confusing to operate and suggested designers come up with something better, he said, and they did.

Next door to Chestnut's garage is a warehouse filled with broken parts. There Michael Moore runs the component quality analysis team, which gets hundreds of broken parts a day from around the country for inspection in an attempt to learn what went wrong. Moore sees himself as the coroner.

"I let the parts do the talking," said Moore, twisting a common phrase used in the "CSI" TV shows in which crime scene investigators say they let the evidence do the talking.

On a recent morning, about half a dozen Chrysler engineers stood around a table trying to figure out why the roof rack on the new Dodge Nitro was rattling in the wind. A larger piece of adhesive was needed to better secure it to the roof, they decided.

A relatively easy fix can be implemented on the assembly line for future vehicles and taken care of in the mechanics' shops when vehicles are serviced, Chrysler officials say.

Detroit Free Press
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