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Published: Tuesday, 8/29/2006

Public gets peek at new plant for Jeep Wrangler

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

DaimlerChrysler AG opened the doors yesterday to the seven-week-old home of the redesigned Jeep Wrangler, a $900 million multifactory Toledo plant.

It was a ceremonial showing off of the facility where three suppliers run three factories that feed into a Chrysler plant that performs final assembly work on the sport utility vehicle. The factories were announced three years ago and have been making cars since late July, but the operation had been seen only by workers.

"While it was difficult to map out the exact steps on this journey, that's what brought us here today," said Tom LaSorda, Chrysler's president and chief executive.

Resulting from a historic agreement reached with UAW Local 12, the Toledo Jeep Assembly complex is the first of its kind in North America with on-site suppliers running factories.

The multifactory Wrangler operations are expected to have more than 1,100 employees when a second production shift is added Sept. 25.

Said Lloyd Mahaffey, the United Auto Workers director for Ohio: "It's the first in this country, but it's not going to be the last."

Tom LaSorda, president and CEO of Chrysler Group, stands next to the new five-passenger Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited.
Tom LaSorda, president and CEO of Chrysler Group, stands next to the new five-passenger Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited.
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Chrysler is conducting final assembly and testing for two and four-door Wranglers.

But Germany's Kuka Group is building their bodies, Canada's Magna International Inc. is painting them, and South Korea's Hyundai Mobis is assembling their chassis with axles from Toledo's Dana Corp. and parts from other companies.

The concept of sharing some assembly operations could be replicated elsewhere despite some unforeseen hiccups with Chrysler's goal of spreading out costs with three suppliers.

Various politicians helped mark the event yesterday, including Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, and Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner.

Including grants and training money, Ohio gave Chrysler and its three key suppliers about $200 million worth of incentives.

The 1.6 million-square-foot plant replaces aging Wrangler-building operations at Jeep Parkway and Stickney Avenue. Parkway, the nation's longest running auto plant, will be demolished, but Stickney is being used to ready parts for the Wrangler as well as the Jeep Liberty and Dodge Nitro at an adjoining five-year-old plant.

The Nitro, the first non-Jeep at the Toledo assembly operation in a decade, began production this month on the same assembly lines that make the Liberty.

Gov. Bob Taft is surrounded by shiny new Jeeps. The state gave incentives to DaimlerChrysler and three automotive suppliers.
Gov. Bob Taft is surrounded by shiny new Jeeps. The state gave incentives to DaimlerChrysler and three automotive suppliers.
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A few Local 12 members rallied yesterday outside the plant to protest the way about 200 skilled tradesmen were left jobless when Wrangler production was moved from the old plants. They are getting paid for another year through the so-called jobs bank program.

The Wrangler would have been moved to Mexico if workers had not agreed to let suppliers take over some work, union and company officials said.

Local 12 is representing hourly workers at all of the suppliers. At Hyundai Mobis, the pay is $12 to $14 an hour; the other two suppliers are matching Chrysler's pay scale of $26 an hour.

"So much for the demise of the United States auto industry," Bruce Baumhower, Local 12's president, said to applause from hundreds of workers, supplier officials, and community leaders at a news conference yesterday.

"Not only did these guys jump on the train," he added, "but they're driving it."

Workers verify the transmission and engine fit at the chassis assembly plant run by a subsidiary of Hyundai Mobis. Workers verify the transmission and engine fit at the chassis assembly plant run by a subsidiary of Hyundai Mobis.
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Some quality issues have cropped up since production for four-door Wrangler Unlimiteds began July 17, but they are being addressed, Dan Henneman, Local 12's chairman at Jeep, told The Blade.

Toledoan Marty Ruff, a 29-year Jeep veteran who works in the Wrangler's final assembly shop, said operations have improved.

"It's getting better," said Mr. Ruff, who does final assembly on Kuka-supplied doors. "There's still a long ways to go, though."

Other vehicles could be added to the plant, Mr. LaSorda said.

The paint shop run by Magna was built to accommodate a low-production vehicle that could be finished elsewhere, helping to utilize an assembly plant's most expensive part, Mr. LaSorda said. The other shops also could add production not finished in Toledo, he said.

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at:

jmckinnon@theblade.com

or 419-724-6087.



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