With the addition in 2009 of the Dodge Dart, Belvidere Assembly in northern Illinois became the largest plant in the Chrysler Group (www.chrysler.com). Belvidere has 5 million sq ft under roof and employs 329 salaried and 4,415 hourly workers. Nearly $700 million was spent on a new body shop to produce the Dart, and more than 1,800 new jobs were added since 2009. The Dart shares Belvidere with the Jeep Compass and Patriot models. Since the Belvidere plant opened in 1965, 22 different vehicle models have been assembled there. In recent years, as Chrysler went through three different ownership structures, each of the new owners has chosen Belvidere as the place to build new models.
Dodge Dart moves down Belvidere assembly line between two Jeep models.
“What we call the ‘control room process’ for new model introduction is a true joint process, developed between Fiat and Chrysler,” says Bob Allen, Dodge Dart launch manager. “Each station is designed in minute detail in the control room prior to any work on the shop floor. This approach enabled us to launch the Dart without the off-site pilot lines and extensive production interruptions that are traditional in a Detroit car launch. Build stations were designed around the car without disruption of the existing Belvidere production flow, resulting in amazing floor space utilization.”
By contrast to the Dart launch, Belvidere was shut down for 16 weeks in 1987 for the changeover to the Chrysler New Yorker and Dodge Dynasty models. According to Allen, the Belvidere team is now helping other Chrysler plants organize their new product launches.
Effectiveness and efficiency
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Like all major auto assembly plants, Belvidere runs to a master build schedule that coordinates the components of all the vehicles being assembled. At Belvidere, though, the assembly conveyors carry what sometimes appears to be a random mix of all three models through much of the assembly process. “This is especially challenging,” explains Allen, “because the Dart is a top-down assembly while the Jeep models are built bottom-up on their heavy-duty drivetrains.” The mixed model approach places big demands on the flexibility of more than 1,800 robots and a lot of well-trained employees. The payoff is that it enhances the utilization of floor space and production equipment in a way that three parallel assembly lines could never have done. This flexibility and the spirit of the people who make it happen are important factors in attracting new investment and car lines to Belvidere.
“One of the key drivers of this cultural change is world class manufacturing (WCM),” explains Mauro F. Pino, vice president — assembly operations and world class manufacturing. “WCM began at Fiat in 2006, including Fiat business units such as CNH, Iveco, Fiat Powertrain, and Magneti Marelli. And then it spread to Chrysler when the alliance between the two groups began. WCM is crucial to our competitiveness and our future. It involves everyone at every level of the organization.”
“One of the ten ‘pillars’ of WCM is autonomous maintenance (AM),” explains Regina Metzger, WCM lead for Belvidere. “Equipment failures are the third or fourth most costly causes of production losses in all assembly plants. Teams of production workers clean and service equipment now, performing oiling, checkups, and minor repairs that used to be performed by tradespeople. This frees the trades to pursue root cause analysis (RCA) of failures so they can be prevented from happening in the future.”
AM builds ownership, explains Nick Wells, AM lead for Belvidere. “As they clean and service the equipment and restore it to new machine operating condition, operators develop a new kind of pride in their plant,” he says. “Belvidere’s build schedule calls for an increase in production as large as what you would expect from an additional plant. The only way we can reach that level of productivity is by having world class reliability from our equipment. AM is how we will achieve it.”