TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Although Chrysler Group’s innovative, new Toledo North assembly plant currently is slated to build only the Jeep Wrangler, Tom LaSorda, the company’s chief operating officer, says the facility could produce other models.

The new Toledo North site, scheduled to come on stream in 2006, is notable for a first-time arrangement for a domestic auto maker: Three major suppliers will be co-located at the site, each with complete responsibility for a primary facet of the Wrangler’s assembly – paint, body and rolling chassis. (See related story: Chrysler Outlines New Toledo Plant, Suppliers)

At a meeting with journalists at the Management Briefing Seminars here, LaSorda reveals the plant potentially could build other vehicles, if market conditions warrant.

Any vehicle besides the Wrangler built at the new plant would have to have body-on-frame architecture, LaSorda says, but “if a frame-based vehicle gets ‘hot,’” it could be built at Toledo North in the same distinctive process planned for the Wrangler.

Chrysler COO
Tom LaSorda

At Toledo North, three suppliers will “construct and own nearly 1 million sq.-ft. (92,900 sq.-m) of plant space” inside the site’s footprint, LaSorda says.

Durr Industries will construct a 400,000 sq.-ft. (37,160 sq.-m) paint shop, with 160 employees. Kuka Group will build the 25,000 sq.-ft. (23,225 sq.-m) body shop and Hyundai Mobis will account for 200,000 sq.-ft. (18,580 sq.-m) for a facility to construct rolling-chassis modules.

LaSorda says although the DaimlerChrysler AG management board ultimately approved the unique plant arrangement, it is unlikely the system can – or will – be “retrofitted” in any existing DC assembly plants.

“This is a test to prove (the concept) can work,” he says. But he stresses Toledo North’s concept is best-suited to “a greenfield strategy, or a major investment” in a plant slated for a primary retooling.

However, LaSorda says the auto maker is proud of the fact the Toledo North facility is a brownfield development.

Chrysler’s concept for co-locating suppliers within the footprint of the Toledo North plant differs from a previous then-radical concept for increasing the role of suppliers in the assembly process: General Motors Corp.’s controversial, late-1990s “Yellowstone” project.

The central focus of Yellowstone, however, revolved around suppliers that would construct – in satellite plants near the auto maker’s main assembly site – large portions of the vehicle in modules to be shipped to the main plant for assembly by GM workers.

“This concept is much more advanced than what they were thinking,” LaSorda says.

Yellowstone caused an uproar in the ranks of the United Auto Workers union, which envisioned the “modularization” central to the Yellowstone project as synonymous with good-paying jobs being offloaded to lower-paying suppliers.

LaSorda says the labor arrangements have yet to be finalized for the 3,500-3,800 new jobs falling under Toledo North’s operating arrangement, but notes, “I anticipate they will all be unionized.”

bvisnic@primediabusiness.com