It's industry chic cheap.

The new Toledo North Assembly Plant is home to the latest member of the Jeep family, the '02 Liberty sport/utility vehicle (SUV), and it represents the latest in flexible manufacturing technology.

But if you ask Frank Ewasyshyn, DaimlerChrysler Corp. senior vice president of advance manufacturing engineering, what makes this new $750 million plant stand out from the crowd, he responds with a four-letter word: cost.

And that was before earnings took a nosedive and cutting costS took on an urgency not envisioned four years ago when the new Toledo plant was an idea taking three-dimensional shape on a computer screen.

Mr. Ewasyshyn credits those early CAD (computer-aided design) drawings of the facility and the vehicle with the carmaker's ability to build a plant for $54 a square foot. That is substantially less than DCC's own best, the Jefferson North Assembly Plant, which came in at $85/sq. ft. The industry standard is closer to $95/sq. ft. and Mr. Ewasyshyn says many plants in the industry were built at a cost of $125/sq. ft.

Toledo North was designed using manufacturing simulation software where it is cheap, fast and easy to make changes to come up with the ultimate in efficiency. Virtual lines cranked out virtual product, working out the virtual bugs 180 weeks before the plant was ready for production. As Liberty evolved, changes were made, onscreen, to the manufacturing processes for on-the-fly engineering tweaks.

The whole plant was built electronically and existed as a “3D model before we ever dug a hole,” says Mr. Ewasyshyn.

The end result is the third leg of DCC's flexible manufacturing stool. The first two are Sterling Heights Assembly Plant (SHAP) and Windsor Assembly Plant (WAP). All three facilities were designed to build two products and pilot a third for seamless product changeover with no production loss.

It enabled SHAP to build Sebring/Stratus sedan and convertible and WAP to build old and new minivans simultaneously, while preparing to add a new tall wagon codenamed CS.

There are no immediate plans to add a second product to Toledo, says Mr. Ewasyshyn. But the plant was designed to accommodate future change of any kind, right down to the decision to not bolt washroom or office space into the floor. They are housed in portable pods that can be relocated.

“Toledo is the third leg of the story,” says Mr. Ewasyshyn, designed to incorporate proven technology and flexibility.

Planning dates back to the days before Chrysler Corp. merged with Daimler-Benz to create DaimlerChrysler AG. The idea was to make Toledo North “truly the first operating principals-based plant, because it was our first shot at doing a whole new building,” says Mr. Ewasyshyn.

The decision was made to design the facility virtually knowing that, “with so much equipment, it was hard to coordinate,” says Mr. Ewasyshyn. “We could have assigned it to one contractor to manage, but we would pay a heck of a premium for that. Or we could build it electronically. We avoided, up front, $3 million to $4 million in changes by building the whole thing electronically, in 3D, first.”

The target was to build the general assembly portion and body shop for $58/sq. ft. The engineers came in under, at $54/sq. ft., and the cuts are not visible. The $54 includes the structure, floor, lighting, power, water, even air conditioning.

Mr. Ewasyshyn says it sets a new industry benchmark, and it's an exercise that is being repeated in Windsor, Ont., where DCC is tripling the size of the Pillette Road Truck Assembly Plant, including new body and paint shops.

Pre-production Jeeps are rolling off the line, on schedule. About 500 workers were being trained and were building about eight prototypes a day in December.

Toledo North will employ 1,821 over two shifts when Liberty goes into production in the spring at a rate of 800 vehicles a day. Liberty goes on sale next summer.

A third shift is easily added when demand warrants.

Many of the workers in place to date come from the neighboring Parkway Assembly Plant which produces the Jeep Cherokee (until demand falls off and the product is shelved) as well as painted Jeep Wrangler bodies, which are then sent to Stickney Assembly Plant for trim, chassis and final assembly.

Stickney actually shares the site, a wall and a roof with the new Toledo North facility, which essentially wraps itself around Stickney. You can actually see a Wrangler go by when you are in Toledo North.

The Chrysler/Daimler merger brought some German technology to the new plant. Toledo North incorporates a robotic sealer system proprietary to the Mercedes-Benz assembly plant in Sindelfingen, Germany. A robot applies the sealer in volumes accurate to one-tenth of a milliliter, using an electromagnetic device to pinpoint where it is to be applied. This highly repeatable process ensures the minimum amount of sealer needed is precisely applied so there is no excess weight, no dripping on the floor. A black light booth and radioactive dye shows areas where it has been over-applied so it can be wiped clean before the vehicle continues. The plan is to become North American experts in this technology, which ensures water seal and reduces wind noise.

The plant also utilizes some common processes from WAP and SHAP including a 7-ft. (2.1-m) wide gummiband conveyor system instead of the traditional steel system that requires maintenance and is less forgiving on an operator's body.

A skillet conveyor carries vehicles on palettes that are height adjustable for the operator and can accommodate more than one vehicle on the same main conveyor line.

Having common architecture, referring to the way the vehicle is assembled, allows DCC to run them all through the same process, says Mr. Ewasyshyn. “We applied the lessons learned at SHAP and then WAP here. We don't have to replow the startup lessons.”

Toledo has a 14,450-sq.-ft. (1,342-sq.-m) body shop with 120 robots and a fleet of unmanned, site-guided vehicles or jitneys that deliver parts via the wide aisles designed to accommodate them.

There are 270 robots in the plant as a whole. It means the 65-lb. (29.5- kg) doors are never lifted by a human. An electric wrench hooked to a computer installs the bolt for the liftgate. The tool runs until it makes torque. If not, the line stops.

The four-level paint shop is designed for 60 jobs an hour. It uses 80,000 volts of electricity to apply the powdered anti-chip coating. Each Liberty has one water-based basecoat (10 colors available) and two coats of clear. All incoming paint is tested before it is cleared for use in the booths. Mechanized emu feather dusters clean the vehicle before entering the spray booth, and there is a full-time dirt analyst on each shift. DCC incorporated several thousand improvements to the paint operation, from lessons learned at Newark, DE, which had been the group's most state-of-the-art paint shop prior to Toledo.

The paint shop control room monitors 8,000 processes, and the plant as a whole measures 14,000 processes. Finished vehicles are tested on an evaluation course at the new facility.

There are seven supplier plants within 20 minutes of Toledo North building components ranging from seats and instrument panels to rear suspension modules and floor pans. They arrive just in time, in sequence, and are installed right on the line. Tires are built up in another building and brought in.

An additional 36 parts arrive from the sequencing center down the road, to minimize handling and reduce the amount of inventory in the plant. It means there are few parts bins on site and no more than two hours of stock on the line at any given time. The docks are light construction to get cost out.

Engines arrive assembled and are finished at the plant. The company expects most buyers to take the all-new 3.7L V-6 all-purpose SOHC engine built specifically for Liberty. The little brother to the 4.7L V-8 used in Grand Cherokee was originally to be built at Mack Avenue engine assembly, but the decision was made to build a $270 million plant next door for the 3.7L.

Mack 2 began making its first engines in October 2000 and has a capacity of 300,000, of which 200,000 will go to Liberty and the rest to Dakota. Mack 2 is expected to add a second shift in the spring.

The expectation is 95% of Liberty buyers will opt for the 3.7L, as opposed to the 2.4L I-4 DOHC made in Saltillo, Mexico, or the diesel engine made in Italy.

Stamping is done at Sterling Stamping in Sterling Heights, MI. Liberty has 13 panels that are laser welded blanks, which amounts to 10,000 a day. A new 3D welding technique that uses mirrors to direct the light is being tested with Liberty. It can do 56 welds on the liftgate in 32 seconds, which is two to three times faster than traditional spot welding.

Liberty is the newest member of the 60-year-old Jeep family and was initially designed to replace the 17-year-old Cherokee. The thinking, four years ago, was to build a new plant to build the next derivative of the Cherokee, codenamed XJR for renewal. The decision was made, instead, to come up with a new contemporary expression of Jeep. It gained a new name, KJ, to represent its new architecture.

DC officials see it as fitting that the new plant is located where Jeep started 60 years ago.

Liberty will co-exist with the stalwart Cherokee, which DaimlerChrysler Corp. can continue to build until mid-2002. It was originally slated to build out in March '01. That date has been extended indefinitely, as long as sales warrant, says Thomas Sidlik, DaimlerChrysler Corp. executive vice president and general manager of Jeep operations.