BELVIDERE, IL – Little is being left to chance here as Chrysler gets ready to launch production of its new Dodge Dart.

All eyes are on the compact sedan, the first full-fledged offspring to emerge from the Detroit auto maker’s shotgun marriage to Fiat following its 2009 bankruptcy. The Dart market launch, set for the second quarter, leads a string of new Fiat-based vehicles that serve as linchpins in the broad recovery plan CEO Sergio Marchionne spelled out in detail some 28 months ago.

And it’s clear by the $20 million poured into new quality processes and productivity improvements here the auto maker doesn’t want any hiccups with the new model, expected to compete in the U.S. with the likes of the Honda Civic, Ford Focus and Chevrolet Cruze.

That investment comes on top of the $700 million spent on an all-new body shop for the Dart and its derivatives and the cost of expanding production from a 2-shift to 3-crew operation later this year.

“This is a crucial vehicle launch for the company as we re-enter the compact sedan market, and everyone is committed to launching a high-quality product,” says Doug Betts, senior vice president-quality.

The Dodge brand has its work cut out for it, having landed dead last in the 2011 J.D. Power Initial Quality Study rankings with 137 problems per 100 vehicles, 28% more than the industry average.

Quality-related investments at this 46-year-old plant include what Chrysler calls the Control Room, a production-staging lab that is allowing the auto maker to refine Dart manufacturing techniques before the car reaches the final assembly line, plus a Metrology Center for verifying fits and finishes and a fully automated body-panel line.

The Control Room is a 38,000-sq.-ft. (3,530-sq.-m) facility converted from a former onsite parts warehouse. Inside are three mini conveyor lines replicating Belvidere’s chassis, door and trim operations and used to iron out manufacturing bugs and standardize final-assembly procedures.

There’s also a virtual-reality station, where workers can fine-tune parts designs and production techniques and perfect line sequencing that determines what component should be installed when prior to purchasing expensive tooling.

“We took people off the plant floor and had them design their own workstations,” notes Bob Allen, Belvidere launch manager. “That way they have ownership (in the process).”

One of the challenges in launching the Dart is its architecture, which differs from the platform underpinning the Jeep Compass and Patriot also assembled at Belvidere.

In addition to the complexity of building two different models on the same line, Chrysler is keen on keeping Jeep output at full tilt as it works Dart into the mix, meaning the manufacturing processes for the Alfa Giulietta-based car had to be nearly perfected even before pilot production began several months ago.

Allen says the Control Room concept, an idea borrowed from Fiat, already has proven its worth.

Downtime during the run of the first Dart pilot down the line totaled 98 minutes. By the time the 20th pilot was built, losses were nearly zero, and the plant now is completing 10-12 cars daily with cumulative downtime of 5 minutes or less, Allen says.

Belvidere’s assembly operation covers 1.6 million sq.-ft. (149,000 sq.-m) and houses the bulk of the complex’s 2,714 hourly employees.

To train workers, specially designed practice bucks are placed along the line at each station, where installers can repeat required tasks until they are performed mistake-free and at the required speed. The bucks are equipped with lights that signal when a job is done correctly or to identify precisely what error was made.

Once in full production, parts will be delivered to the line in what Chrysler calls a Mega Kit, a 5-tray stack that puts components within easy reach, reducing build time and worker fatigue. Each assembler has just 43-44 seconds to complete his task.

The Dart’s new 702,000-sq.-ft. (65,216-sq.-m) body shop is flexible enough to build four different body styles based on the same platform. Although there is only the sedan for now, Chrysler is expected to replace the Compass with a new model derived from the Dart’s C-EVO architecture for the ’14 model year, and other models may follow.

The body shop employs 967 robots, including 609 redeployed from the now-shuttered St. Louis assembly plants, saving the auto maker $29 million in tooling costs. Transfer machines also have been repurposed from other sites.

To improve productivity, body panels are delivered to what Chrysler calls its “Marketplace,” a collection of line-side racks that hold parts needed for production. Five such marketplaces are located around the body shop in a collection of 30 delivery points, down from 285 in the Jeep operation.

Finished bodies move to the fully automated panel line, where rear doors, front doors, fenders, decklid and hoods are installed in order. Robotics and vision systems assure panels are perfectly aligned on 100% of the vehicles built. No workers are needed to perform tasks that are done manually on the Jeep Compass and Patriot line.

Betts says he would spend the occasional Saturday at a dealership eyeballing the variation in the way rear decklids or doors were hung from one vehicle to the next.

Now, with the automated panel process, “if you go to a dealer and see the Dart, all the lines will be the same,” he says, with no extra-wide gaps or misalignments.

As a Dart nears the end of the assembly line, it enters what Chrysler calls a “quality gate,” where inspectors circle the car to check for human error along 18 checkpoints. Handheld scanners are used to flash barcodes and signal up the line whether the car meets requirements or requires a fix.

If there’s a problem, the worker who incorrectly installed the part comes down to make the repair. The goal is to work human error out of the system. Once a task on the watch list reaches 22 straight days of zero defects, it comes out of the quality gate and a new item is added to the checklist.

A big chunk of Chrysler’s $20 million quality investment at Belvidere went into the $12.5 million Metrology Center used to verify components meet specification.

Suppliers must provide sample parts for quality checks two weeks prior to each vehicle build phase. The components are installed on a Quality Assurance Fixture, a dimensionally perfect buck of the car milled from an aluminum block, to smoke out any fix and finish issues. Chrysler says more than 400 problems have been identified and resolved since the center was opened in third-quarter 2011.

“You won’t see this type of a facility in a lot of places,” Betts says. “These are things we wouldn’t have spent money on in the past.”

The $3 million, 16,000-sq.-ft. (1,486-sq.-m) Center of Technical Vehicle Validation and Materials Lab onsite houses more than 400 tools used to audit randomly selected Darts as they come off the assembly line. Some 437 functional characteristics, including emissions, fit and finish, panel alignment and noise, vibration and harshness, are measured and tracked on about 18 vehicles per day.

Many of these quality tools and techniques were imported from Fiat as part of the Italian auto maker’s World Class Manufacturing system, and Belvidere is not the first Chrysler facility to incorporate them. Since 2010, the auto maker has spent $103 million on Metrology Centers, alone, for its North American assembly operations.

But Betts says none of Chrysler’s other plants had this much in place as far ahead of a new-vehicle launch as Belvidere has had, and he expects that to make a bigger impact on initial quality.

Previously, it took Chrysler 12-18 months to hit quality targets on new-model launches. It required about four months with the Grand Cherokee, the first all-new vehicle rolled out under Fiat ownership. The auto maker wants to better that timetable with the new Dart.

Belvidere already is considered the highest-quality plant in the Chrysler system, boasting the lowest warranty cost in 2011 and so far in 2012, according to internal data. It also is the auto maker’s most productive, with just 25 hours needed to produce a vehicle.

Official Job One launch for the Dart here is set for sometime this quarter, and the Belvidere plant will move to a 3-crew, from a 2-shift, operation in the third quarter, adding 1,800 new jobs. The facility will rotate the three crews through two 10-hour shifts per day, six days a week in a system that will allow it to operate an additional 49 days a year.

Currently, Belvidere builds 1,040 vehicles per day. Last year, the plant assembled 236,713 vehicles, and through March it has produced 70,856 so far in 2012.

The new model, which will offer a choice of three 4-cyl. engines, including a 1.4L turbo with Fiat’s patented MultiAir valve-actuation technology, has undergone 8.5 million miles (13.7 million km) of road testing, about double the ground typically covered by the pre-bankruptcy Chrysler.

The laser-like focus on quality here comes on top of companywide efforts to boost reliability and improve consumer perception that Betts says is paying off.

He points to a 59% reduction in overall warranty claims since 2007, and continued 15% annual improvement, as evidence of progress.

It took some soul-searching, extensive benchmarking and clear targeting and communication to set Chrysler on the right path, Betts says.

“Once you set the target, then the competitiveness everyone naturally feels takes over,” he says. “It’s so important that we make our position clear. We didn’t do this before. We had half the people in the company who thought we were good.”

Betts glances over his shoulder at the milled-aluminum Quality Assurance Fixture on the Metrology Center floor. “I don’t see how we could survive without getting all this right.”

dzoia@wardsauto.com