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Chrysler plans hint at whole new path


Chrysler Group LLC’s plans for its Toledo Assembly complex suggest that the automaker is trying to break through a technological barrier that has bedeviled the automotive industry since the first robots appeared decades ago — sending vehicles of different sizes and shapes down the same assembly line.

And if it works — so long as Chrysler green lights the expansion plan it has laid before state and local officials while seeking government incentives — the result could provide an unprecedented level of job security for local Chrysler employees.

Because instead of having their fates tied to a single model or style of vehicle, workers in Toledo could find themselves in a plant that could build whatever car, crossover, or SUV that Chrysler needs on a given day.

For example, if SUV sales slow because of soaring gas prices, it’s no problem. Managers could switch to building fuel-efficient compact sedans. If consumers don’t like the looks of a new hatchback, schedulers could start sending better-selling crossovers down the assembly line in a relatively short period.

There are only hints of what kind of manufacturing revolution might be in the works, and Chrysler is notoriously tight-lipped about both future products and how and where it intends to build them.

On the record, the company will say only that it is “working with state and local governments to secure incentives that would support the business case” to invest in Toledo.

But in meetings with Toledo government leaders, Chrysler executives said “the new manufacturing process and vehicle content changes would introduce a new level of complexity to plant operations.” They pointed to nearly a dozen different future vehicles — including the successor to the current Jeep Liberty — all of which may share common attributes with other Chrysler and Fiat vehicles, thereby allowing any or all of those vehicles to be built by workers in Toledo, depending on customer demand.

“That’s how it used to be 40 or 50 years ago,” explained a retired automotive engineer who asked that his name not be used because he maintains a relationship with several automakers. “When it was only human beings on the assembly line, you could make different models and different shapes next to one another, because humans are smart enough to differentiate one vehicle from another and adjust accordingly. But robots haven’t been able to do that so far, because robots don’t like variables and they don’t handle surprises very well.”

But Chrysler’s future product plan is different.

Sergio Marchionne, chief executive officer of both Chrysler and Fiat, laid out his long-term plan to journalists in 2009. It envisioned a large number of vehicles ranging in size from the Dodge Caliber to the Jeep Liberty, and all sharing common attributes that would theoretically allow them to ride down the same auto assembly line.

Because of those common attributes — known as principal locating points in the auto industry — and with the right parts sequencing, an unfinished vehicle can move down the assembly line and become any one of the 11 vehicles that Chrysler wants to make.

Such a method would produce astronomical savings in research, development, and production costs. And for workers using such a system, it would mean they could build vehicles according to demand without fear of layoffs due to sagging model sales or fuel price changes.

And if a vehicle’s domestic sales began to slump, the plant could be adapted quickly to making vehicles for sales overseas.

“One of the fundamental things that is at the heart of the synergy argument with Fiat, and which we are executing now, is the ability to specialize particular architectures within particular sites. So in an ideal world, and it’s a world we’re trying to build, is fundamentally to allow for a free flow of products between Europe, other parts of the Fiat industrial framework, and NAFTA,” Mr. Marchionne told investors last year. “We’re beginning to see the benefit of that kind of interface already, because there are going be some products produced in U.S. plants that will have a badge that is not a Chrysler Group badge.”

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