CommentaryFord and Chrysler have a better idea for insuring quality and speeding up the new-vehicle launch process.

It’s part of a trend among auto makers of integrating hourly workers, especially skilled tradesmen, into product development for the sake of improving the build-ability of vehicles.

Ford is sending hourly workers to assist suppliers during launch ramp-ups to smooth out the rough edges that potentially could lead to costly delays. The goal is to speed up the process throughout the supply line while insuring quality at Job One.

The plan apparently is working, with ramp-ups now down to a 30-45 day period vs. up to a year in some cases, says Ford’s Jim Tetreault, director-car manufacturing operations at the annual automotive Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City.

He says workers actually began their involvement with the ’97 F-Series pickup truck launch and since have familiarized themselves among other things with ergonomics, production logistics and parts sorting.

Recently, United Auto Workers members have spent time in virtual build studios. This is where Ford designs cars digitally, now with the help of plant workers, who help ensure manufacturing compliance before prototyping in hard clay.

The real payoff comes from having a “supply-based launch team,� Tetreault says. This could prove particularly important as Ford prepares to launch its ’07 models, with two new cross/utility vehicles coming from Oakville, Ont., Canada, and new large SUVs from Wayne, MI.

In Chrysler’s case, 100 workers at the auto maker’s Jefferson North Assembly plant in Detroit three years ago began traveling in 28-member teams north to Chrysler’s technology center at its headquarters in Auburn Hills, MI.

The goal was to lend their expertise as to how the new Jeep Commander, to be built at Jefferson North in second-half 2005, should be designed in a way that would make it easier for them to put it together.

Commander output was expected to hit full speed by Aug. 8, representing 45% of the plant’s production mix. The new model is being built alongside its platform mate, the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Toni Harris-Tinker, the plant’s UAW Modern Operating Agreement facilitator, says employees had to apply for the task, undergo interviews and have flawless attendance records.

Morale was boosted, and plant workers came away from the assignment with newfound respect for the SUVs that flow down their assembly line, she says. Erwin Raphael, Jefferson North plant manager, says the Commander is a different vehicle today than before plant workers got involved.

Such collaborations bode well for the auto industry and for organized labor, which more often are at odds.

It can be an especially effective weapon in staving off the onslaught of non-union Asian auto makers now building cars on U.S. soil. But the real winner appears to be the consumer.Â

bmcclellan@primediabusiness.com