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Fri, Jan. 27, 2012
Chrysler turns to high-tech gizmos to raise workers' skills

Chrysler workers are using tools normally found at film animation studios - such as 3D videos and computerized motion sensors - to reshape the way they assemble a car or build an engine.

The automaker and the UAW have created an amusement park-like atmosphere in a generic industrial building in Warren, Mich., to teach problem-solving skills that workers apply back at their plants, said Scott Tolmie, World Class Manufacturing academy leader.

"It becomes unforgettable. They are able to experience hands-on training ... and we are constantly linking back what they are learning here to the shop floor," Tolmie said.

At one station, workers wear special goggles that show three-dimensional videos about safety hazards.

Another station has small wooden catapults that enable workers to shoot ping-pong balls at a target. Participants must adjust more than a dozen settings on the catapult in order to hit the center of the target.

At a mock work station, employees don a special black suit with motion sensors similar to those used by the movie industry to digitally track movement. The system identifies stressful actions and enables workers to devise more efficient and safer movements.

Chrysler has tried to teach employees several other manufacturing systems in recent years aimed at improving quality and reducing costs.

But those efforts had only moderate success. So many employees cast a skeptical eye when Chrysler's manufacturing leaders introduced yet another regimen in 2009 called World Class Manufacturing, which helped Fiat pull itself from the brink of financial ruin last decade.

To get the American doubters to buy in, Chrysler renovated 25,000 square feet of its UAW training center in Warren with classrooms and high-tech tools.

"We had to make a splash," Tolmie said. "We had to really create a new idea in people's minds that this is not going away."

The new academy has been in its pilot phase since October, but will be unveiled to the media and local officials this week by the UAW and Chrysler executives.

The lobby includes a giant touch-screen system about the size of six flat-panel televisions that employees can use to toggle through different manufacturing topics.

Chrysler's goal is to bring more than 1,200 hourly and salaried workers through the academy annually for two- or three-day sessions. Already, about 320 employees from 30 Chrysler plants have participated in the academy's pilot phase.

"WCM is not a flavor of the month," Tolmie said.

WCM was adopted by Fiat in 2005 and introduced to Chrysler in 2009 after Fiat acquired management control of the Auburn Hills, Mich., automaker.

UAW Vice President General Holiefield has said he was initially skeptical of the new system but has since spoken highly of the process because of the way it gets hourly workers involved.

"WCM is a way of life within all of the Chrysler facilities," Holiefield said in October. "It will drive the quality right through the roof."

The process has its roots in Toyota's manufacturing system, said Jay Baron, chairman and president of the Center for Automotive Research. But it also shares each Chrysler plant's performance with the others.

"That's one unique aspect," Baron said. "What benchmarking does is it creates competition, and a little competition is good."

But Chrysler workers have more at stake than bragging rights. The UAW contract ratified by workers in October provides a $500 annual bonus that can increase to as much as $1,000 annually if a plant hits certain World Class Manufacturing targets.

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