Special Coverage

Management Briefing Seminars

TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Larry Drake, CEO and president of Kuka Flexible Production Systems Corp., admits he was not happy when he learned his company would have to hire several retired workers from a Jeep plant in Toledo, OH, as part of its deal to build vehicle bodies at Chrysler LLC’s Toledo Supplier Park.

Kuka, a subsidiary of the German robotics and engineering firm Kuka AG, is one of three suppliers managing production of the Jeep Wrangler and Wrangler Unlimited at the innovative supplier facility – the first of its kind.

Hyundai Mobis Corp. produces the rolling chassis, while Magna International Inc. operates the paint shop for the Wranglers. Chrysler manages the vehicle trim operations.

Approximately 54% of Kuka’s 245 workers at the supplier park are retired Jeep employees. Others are either new hires or were brought in from Kuka’s facility in Detroit.

Drake, who was concerned with hiring older, union workers now credits the move for helping Kuka exceed its original production goals.

“It’s worked,” he says here at the Management Briefing Seminars. Kuka, which operates two shifts, initially planned to ship approximately 35 vehicle bodies per hour, but that number consistently reaches 40, according to Drake.

“We’re pushing the envelope,” he says, while crediting tweaks the supplier has been able to make with guidance from the union and its older workers.

The first shift’s average age is 54 – twice that of the second shift’s workers. Another dynamic: 13 of the workers on the first shift have sons working the second shift.

The differences in age provide an unexpected benefit as the shifts engage in “friendly” competition trying to outdo each other, Drake says.

cbanks@wardsauto.com