TOLEDO, OH – Chrysler plants in two states that faced vastly different outcomes now are following one path toward viability.

The first is the Sterling Heights Assembly Plant, which is building the next-generation Chrysler 200 and also is home to an expansive paint shop for the bulk of Chrysler vehicles. Located in a Detroit suburb, the facility was at risk of closure as the auto maker emerged from bankruptcy.

The second is the Toledo Assembly Complex, a 3.5-million-sq.-ft. (325,160-sq.-m) mega-compound that started out as a bicycle factory more than a century ago. Today, it produces the Jeep Wrangler and recently added the all-new Jeep Cherokee, two of Chrysler’s top volume models.

Chrysler has invested a combined $1.35 billion in the two plants and has World Class Manufacturing initiatives, a Fiat-Chrysler philosophy of utilizing the best-possible practices in factory settings.

WCM assigns scores to factories that meet a wide range of guidelines, from waste management to injury prevention to equipment usage. A top goal is saving money, but the primary game is to prevent quality hiccups before they reach the customer.

Chrysler this year is introducing “WCM Lite,” which invites suppliers into the production process for full transparency and constant communication.  In the past, if supplier relations were positive, OEMs rarely had contact with them. But the auto maker now is taking a more proactive approach toward communication.

“It’s the very beginning phase of a launch, to working with product engineering and manufacturing engineering, to what is the new process (and) how are we going to install equipment,” Zach Leroux, plant manager-Toledo Assembly Complex, says during a media tour of the plant. “We realize the benefit associated with WCM.”

WCM also seeks insight from workers on the factory floor. Reversing the top-down approach to management, several facilities in the Fiat-Chrysler operation have added or renovated areas dedicated to improving worker conditions, maximizing tool usage and reducing error.

In Sterling Heights, a new “workplace-integration room” has been added to the paint shop, utilizing human interaction, drawing boards and real-life settings to mimic assignments within the shop.

Chrysler heavily emphasizes the “golden zone,” which allows workers to be comfortable in their job duties without adding physical stress in their repetitive movements. As a result, new techniques in the workplace-integration room are implemented on the factory floor.

“Our facility is highly automated, so we are doing everything we can to address our operating stations,” Shawn Jeffers, launch manager-paint center, tells reporters on a tour of the Sterling Heights shop. “The goal in setting up the operation in the station is to make it safe, make it efficient and make it ergonomically friendly.

“We actually use team leaders and operators to go through all of the elements of the operation itself,” she adds.

In one workplace-integration example, undercoat sealing on vehicle bodies was causing shoulder soreness in some workers. So Chrysler implemented a rotating carrier that allows the worker to spray undercoating in four spaces before the body is flipped by machines – instead of by hand – for additional spraying.

Toledo and Chrysler’s Belvidere, IL, plant, which assembles the Dodge Dart, also use the system. “These first three installations are the first in NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement region),” says John Powell, senior manager-paint facilities.

Fiat operations outside North America are monitoring the potential of that undercoat-sealing system, because the auto maker “does a lot with underbody coating, (and) this could be a very good technology for them,” he says.

Here in Toledo, a brand-new metrology center employing 30 workers uses computer-aided technology for validation of the vehicle’s body geometry, final inspection and certification of supplier parts. Early in the Jeep Cherokee’s production process, some quality issues were “sent to the top,” Jim Cole, senior manager-metrology, tells reporters.

“It’s really telling you the foundation of your product,” Leroux says about the center. “If I have a problem, I have a tool that helps me quickly diagnose what is the root cause; and what I need to do to fix the problem so it does not impact the customer.”

Metrology centers are new to Chrysler and have been launching with new products. Only the Cherokee, Grand Cherokee and Dodge Dart utilize the function for now.

Three-dimensional technology and virtual settings were implemented in many workstations at both plants, meaning additional training for workers, many of whom had worked for decades with equipment manually.

That called for an adjustment in training methodology, workers say, but it proved to be more efficient.

“Previously, when we were trained on a job, the team leader would have five to 10 minutes at most (to spend). Now, (veteran workers) go through classes with all the new hires; extensive classes,” George Pugh, a fourth-generation Toledo employee who works on the chassis line for the Cherokee, tells WardsAuto. “They can train offline before they get on the line.”

Efficiency management includes materials and equipment usage for cost savings. Two notable innovations are seen in Sterling Heights.

Rather than using liquid paint, Chrysler employed a powder base for the better part of two decades. The recent switch to an organic powder compound eliminates the need for additional equipment to destroy non-organic compounds.

Methods to reclaim unused powder in the paint shop have led to a 97% material usage, with 3% going to waste, compared with 25% going to waste when liquid was used.

Additionally, Sterling Heights has replaced a chain-and-cable carrying system to move painted bodies with a series of chuggers on a rail line. “Normally, you’d have the tune running all the time and you may not have any carriers at all,” Jim Hanley, conveyor project manager, tells WardsAuto. “You’d run it all day every day.”

A normal chain-and-cable system cost Chrysler roughly $100,000 annually in energy costs. The rail system cuts that amount to $63,000, Hanley says.

Workers here and at Sterling Heights proudly boast about their efforts to match the top honor in World Class Manufacturing, which is measured in gold, silver and bronze awards. Fiat’s plant in Poland is the only one to achieve gold status.

But equally important are technologies developed at U.S. plants that can be carried over to Fiat’s overseas facilities, sparking a new level of confidence some Chrysler workers say was unseen under past management.

“There’s a lot of new innovative technology here that we don’t have at other plants,” Sterling Heights’ Powell says. “This is definitely going to be our future standard. (WCM) is…a very disciplined way we do business, and the whole point is to eliminate waste.”

afoley@wardsauto.com