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Published: 2/11/2007

Bumpy at first, assembly smooths out for Wrangler

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Four-door Unlimiteds now make up 82 percent of Wrangler production; initial expectations were for 60 percent. Four-door Unlimiteds now make up 82 percent of Wrangler production; initial expectations were for 60 percent.
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Hyundai Mobis runs the factory that produces chassis at the North Toledo complex.
Hyundai Mobis runs the factory that produces chassis at the North Toledo complex.
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WITH A two-week break in between, employees building Jeep Wranglers moved from working in the country s longest-running auto plant to the newest last July.

It took a week longer than expected to produce the first redesigned 2007 vehicle for sale, one sign DaimlerChrysler AG s $900 million manufacturing experiment off Stickney Avenue in North Toledo was having a rocky start.

Not only were workers dealing with an all-new vehicle and high-tech plant, but two on-site suppliers operate factories that build and paint Wrangler bodies, and a third supplies complete chassis.

In the months before the plant was to begin production, Chrysler had to take over ownership of the paint shop from a failing firm and find a replacement to run it, altering its original plan for sharing capital costs.

Starting regular production right after the Jeep Parkway and Stickney Avenue factories closed may have been a bit too soon, said Cynthia Sidoti, Chrysler s manager at the plant known as Toledo Supplier Park.

In hindsight, that was one of the things we said we d do differently, she told The Blade. This just takes time. You continually improve.

The auto industry is closely watching advances at the newest factories at the Toledo Jeep Assembly complex before making any judgments about whether the concept could spread. The complex is the first of its kind in North America, with extensive on-site suppliers who own their operations and employ their workers.

Ongoing overtime for the Wrangler troubles Harbour Consulting, but the firm known for its annual North American productivity report was impressed by how orderly the nascent supplier park was, said Greg Gardner, who was among those who visited the plant last month.

Magna International Inc. operates the paint shop owned by Chrysler, and Kuka Group owns and operates the body shop and Hyundai Mobis the chassis factory.

The processes in the Hyundai Mobis factory are sound, Kuka is doing a good job of not overbuilding bodies, Chrysler s final shop is very compact, and Local 12 is highly involved in training, Mr. Gardner said. Harbour was not allowed into Magna s paint shop, he added.

Overall, we thought the level of cooperation was very high among the partners, he said.

Given that so often you have very troubled relationships between the automakers and suppliers, the level of trust across the four principal players seems to be the biggest positive.

This year, the new Toledo production home of the Wrangler has started to fire on all cylinders, and the complex is building 600 sport-utility vehicles a day.

It has 10-hour weekdays and some Saturdays scheduled through this year for its more than 1,280 employees.

Demand for Wranglers, especially for four-door Unlimited versions, continues to grow both in the United States and worldwide.

We re extremely proud of where we re at, Ms. Sidoti said. It seems like things have really come together.

Some workers said overtime can be a strain, but they are thankful the SUV is selling so well and realize vehicle launches often take time.

Crucial role

The plant s success is especially critical as Chrysler undertakes its second restructuring in a half-dozen years.

Industry experts expect the company to announce this week a plan that will eliminate thousands of jobs and close at least two factories.

We re fortunate to get this new facility, said 21-year Jeep veteran Frank Smaciarz of Toledo. Other plants are going to be closing down. There s going to be a lot of change.

Toledo Jeep, between Chrysler Drive and Stickney Avenue north of I-75, has changed significantly in the past few years.

The plant building the Jeep Liberty opened in 2001, and the new Wrangler operations now sit next to it.

That occurred because of a historic labor agreement that called for the United Auto Workers to give up work to on-site suppliers in exchange for more vehicles, such as the 2007 Dodge Nitro now in production on the Liberty assembly lines.

The agreement also meant the end of the Jeep Parkway factory after the new plant opened last year.

Factories in the new complex could produce more than just the Wrangler, said Bruce Baumhower, president of UAW Local 12, which represents Chrysler workers at Jeep. We d like to do more, he said.

Pay disparities

David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, said on-site suppliers are a good idea, but the arrangement could cause problems for those that pay lower wages.

Suppliers typically pay $10 an hour less than automakers, so their best employees may get hired away, Mr. Cole said. Not wanting to damage its suppliers is a prime reason Honda Motor Co. chose Indiana over Ohio for its latest assembly plant, he said.

Ten dollars an hour difference is a lot of money, Mr. Cole said.

At the Wrangler complex, wages at the body and paint shops mirror those of Chrysler workers there, currently about $26 an hour.

Workers at the chassis factory hire in at about $13 an hour, but the UAW is negotiating a contract there that could boost hourly wages a few dollars.

Daily meetings

Plant managers from the four Wrangler factories meet every morning to discuss operations and work out problems.

Some situations the partners planned for haven t surfaced as problems, such as handling proprietary information, but some minor issues have cropped up unexpectedly, said Larry Lange, plant manager for Hyundai Mobis.

For example, a Chrysler engine plant now supplies Hyundai Mobis instead of Jeep, and there were some supply issues early on that got mired in corporate bureaucracy.

These days, Hyundai Mobis calls the engine plant directly if problems arise, and a plant representative is stationed in Toledo to help quickly address problems, Mr. Lange said.

It s new territory, he said of the supplier park s start-up. It hasn t been done before.

Magna a latecomer to the project after one supplier was replaced and another failed inherited a paint shop it didn t set up or arrange vendors for, but the facility is state of the art, said Erik Brodin, plant manager.

There was a little catch-up to be made, but now I think we ve come a long way, he said.

Chrysler, meanwhile, is changing Wrangler output to meet demand.

Initially, it expected to build 60 percent four-doors and 40 percent two-doors, but now the mix is 82 percent four-door Unlimiteds, Ms. Sidoti said.

Plus, the complex started building Wranglers for overseas markets in early December, and now 18.5 percent of Wranglers are exported, she said.

Shortage of hardtops

Getting enough Wrangler hardtops has been difficult, but their supplier is working on increasing production, Ms. Sidoti said.

Various customers have complained about leaking hardtops, but that may be because they are not putting them back on correctly, she said.

Over the next few weeks, a team of employees will assess work stations in Chrysler s body shop to figure out how to improve efficiency, the plant manager said. Workers who apply multiple Wrangler decals have helped simplify that process, helping to ensure the proper designations such as X or Rubicon go with corresponding SUVs, she said.

At the end of the day, we really rely on the cooperation and the experience of the great workforce we have, Ms. Sidoti said.

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at:jmckinnon@theblade.comor 419-724-6087.



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