KOKOMO, IN – Chrysler is taking a holistic approach to ensure the quality of its 8- and 9-speed automatic transmissions from production to delivery as it ramps up to the release of the latter next year.

The all-new front-wheel-drive 9-speed transmission is expected to be available in most new Chrysler models, although the auto maker has not disclosed which vehicles.

The only guarantee is the new Dodge Dart sedan, Brian Harlow, Chrysler vice president-NAFTA Powertrain Operations, tells reporters during a plant tour, noting that will be about two to three years after the 9-speed launches.

The FWD 9-speed, predicted to be a fuel-saver, is a first for Chrysler and the industry.

With guidance from CEO Sergio Marchionne, Chrysler struck an agreement with Germany-based supplier ZF Friedrichshafen to build the transmissions here. ZF will hold intellectual property rights as part of the deal.

In order to do this, Chrysler executives have overseen a near-complete overhaul of the 3.1 million-sq.-ft. (287,990-sq.-m) Kokomo Transmission Plant (one of four Chrysler transmission facilities located here), taking input from team leaders and workers about efficiency concerns. Some employees have traveled to ZF plants in Europe for insight on how operations should work.

Fiat has a lot more of a hands-on approach as to how people are treated, maybe more than Cerberus (Capital Management) and Daimler did,” Walter Steiner, Kokomo business unit leader-tool and die, says about Chrysler’s past management.

The Kokomo plant has become a symbol of Chrysler’s comeback narrative. In production since the 1950s, it was scheduled to be shuttered following the auto maker’s 2009 bankruptcy. After Fiat acquired a majority stake in the U.S. auto maker, $1.3 million was invested in upgrades and job hires at the facility.

Kokomo currently builds 6-, 5- and 4-speed transmissions, with an output of about 6,000 units daily. The plant is at full capacity, Harlow says, including the 8-speed, which is in pilot production.

When discussions about the 9-speed transmission first cropped up, Harlow says Marchionne didn’t believe the Kokomo could handle a quick turnaround. But after persuasion from Harlow’s team, the plant began renovations last year, utilizing thousands of square feet that had sat vacant for a decade.

Ergonomics ranked high among worker concerns, so new physical functions were added to existing infrastructure to reduce “unnecessary turning and twisting,” employees say.

Large, computerized equipment was purchased to simplify and increase pinion production, and paths were cleared to expedite transport of materials. “We’re the Toyota production system on steroids,” Business Unit Leader-Clutches Tyrone Thomas says.

Such innovations have cleared the way for efficient series production of the 8-speed, which begins in fourth-quarter 2012, and the aluminum-cast 9-speed, which begins in first-quarter 2013.

“I really think we’re going to have a hard time keeping up with the sales,” Harlow says. Merging the auto maker’s current Pentastar V-6 engine with a 5-speed transmission led to a sales boost for the Jeep Wrangler and he anticipates similar results once the 9-speed is introduced.

Harlow forecasts production of 1,400 9-speed transmissions daily, and expects suppliers to keep up with demand. “There’s not a (belief) that if they invest, it will be for naught,” he says.

The end goal is to provide most transmission parts in-house, Harlow says. The Kokomo plant presently makes 30 parts, rather than purchase more technology from suppliers. “It is very expensive any time we make transmissions.”

It’s also possible Chrysler one day could build transmissions for Fiat vehicles, although that’s not on the table right now. “We are a global company, all looking how to do the same things,” Harlow says. There’s the investment here and the applications there.”

afoley@wardsauto.com