In 1995 the aisles along the assembly lines at Chrysler Corp.'s Warren Truck Assembly plant were crowded with large parts bins on unwieldy carts and often littered with discarded cardboard.

In most areas of the plant today the cardboard has almost vanished, the parts are in neat, compact bins and the aisles have so much open space that employees have started to place plants the size of small trees alongside work areas.

The transformation is the result of Chrysler's switch from larger, disposable packaging to small-lot, returnable containers, says Alfred Haroutunian, materials handling engineer for Warren Truck Assembly. It's making a big difference throughout the plant, he says.

The plant station length at Warren Truck in 1996 was 8,210 feet (2,500 m). With the container changes, it's shrunk to 6,500 feet (1,980 m), he says.

In fact, when the plant changes over to the '00 Dakota/Ram production, there will be enough space on an instrument panel line, to fit in a whole new process.

"We're not just condensing the line but we're also able to take out work stations," says Eric T. Schimmel, Warren Truck production control manager.

The same changes are playing out at dozens of U.S. production plants as companies shift from bulk to small-lot containers. And supplier Orbis is quietly taking on a big chunk of that work, says Bret Carlson, Orbis director of project management.

In addition to Chrysler, Orbis has helped General Motors Corp. in its Oshawa, Ont., car plant, (the GMT800 truck program), minivans and other programs. At the CAMI joint venture plant in Ingersoll, Ont. Orbis helped save so much line space that the company added an indoor basketball court. CAMI has outsourced its entire packaging department to Orbis, and the company has two staffers who work right in the plant.Orbis was intimately invo lved in Daimler-Benz AG's M-Class plant in Vance, AL, helping develop a packaging system the German automaker uses to make packaging decisions, Mr. Carlson says. The assessment saved D-B about $60 a vehicle.

In one GM project, Orbis was involved early enough to convince the automaker to redesign a flange on a panel that allowed better packaging without hurting functionality. That change is expected to save $3 million over the life of the program, Mr. Carlson says.

Orbis was rolled together in 1996 from several packaging units of the Menasha Corp., a Wisconsin packaging company.

Besides designing and producing the small-lot containers, the supplier also provides project management services to help ensure the transition from cardboard to returnables.

At the Chrysler pickup truck plant, Mr. Haroutunian is switching another 412 parts from cardboard to returnables. The job is easier because the original cardboard boxes were designed to be the same size as the plastic totes that will replace them, he says.

The plant had only 24% returnables in 1995, but after the latest 412 parts switch packaging, that will rise to 80%, he says.

Mr. Haroutunian is a confirmed convert to small-lot containers, but says he wasn't able to get complete approval for the system. Instead, he has been rolling it out in smaller increments.

With large bins, workers often only have one container at their work station for each part. Restocking often disrupts production. With small containers, a worker has more than one container. When an empty container is moved to a location, that visually signals to forklift drivers when to get a new part.

Chrysler is working on an even more reliable system in which line workers use computers to send an electronic message to the forklift driver to let him know they need a part. The driver reads his messages and gets the stock. The plant already has 42 parts in the computer. The system is only used on one forklift now, but plans call for expanding the program if it works correctly.

"Sometimes you can just take a cue from the line," Mr. Haroutunian says. "I see areas where the workers already are breaking the parts down into smaller lots to work with and convert that area."

One such employee-initiated transformation reduced the walking cycle in one process by 6 ft. (1.8 m), he says.

The transition does have its bumps. Cardboard is just thrown away; returnables have to go back to the supplier to be refilled, and sometimes that causes packaging shortages. Chrysler is working to develop reverse milk runs to ensure that empty containers get where they need to be. It is hiring a supplier to handle the logistics of the program.

But the bottom line is that the small-lot containers system is giving Chrysler big production gains, says Mr. Schimmel. And the employees are buying in, too, adds Mr. Haroutunian.

"The open work environment boosts morale," he says.