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Published: 7/19/2013 - Updated: 9 months ago

CHEROKEE ASSEMBLY SPEEDS UP

Toledo plant making 150 Jeeps a day

Full production due in Sept.

BY TYREL LINKHORN
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Rick Sexton checks a new Cherokee at the Toledo Assembly complex’s new metrology lab. In the lab, workers can get an ultra-close look at parts to make sure they all fit precisely. The lab will check Chrysler’s and suppliers’ parts. Rick Sexton checks a new Cherokee at the Toledo Assembly complex’s new metrology lab. In the lab, workers can get an ultra-close look at parts to make sure they all fit precisely. The lab will check Chrysler’s and suppliers’ parts.
THE BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT Enlarge | Buy This Photo

The chief of Chrysler Group’s Toledo Assembly complex said Thursday that the plant is on schedule as it ramps up production of the Jeep Cherokee and should reach full production sometime in September, shortly after dealers receive their first few models.

“We’re right on track with where we expected ourselves to be, and we’ll push the envelope as we go forward,” plant manager Zach Leroux said.

Production of the Cherokee started June 24. Mr. Leroux said the plant is currently making 150 vehicles a day.

Right now, the plant is working a single shift. Once the second shift comes on and the plant reaches full speed, workers will be able to crank out 896 Cherokees per day, Mr. Leroux said, enabling Toledo to build more than 200,000 of the new sport utility vehicles each year.

Combined with the Jeep Wrangler, which is built in a separate part of the complex, Chrysler will have the capacity build more than 400,000 vehicles a year in Toledo. That will give Toledo the potential to be one of Chrysler’s highest- producing assembly plants.

The improvements needed to launch the Cherokee have not come cheap.

During the last year, Chrysler spent $500 million on a major renovation and expansion project at the 12-year-old plant. The company brought in all new equipment, more robots, and advanced technology that should improve the fit and finish of the vehicles the plant builds.

Chrysler also has been hiring. The automaker added 1,100 jobs in Toledo for the second shift.

During a media tour of the plant on Thursday, Mr. Leroux said the first shift should reach its full capacity within three weeks.

Chrysler Group employees work on the new Cherokee line at the Jeep Assembly complex in Toledo. Production of the new model began June 24, and workers eventually will be able to produce 896 vehicles a day. Chrysler Group employees work on the new Cherokee line at the Jeep Assembly complex in Toledo. Production of the new model began June 24, and workers eventually will be able to produce 896 vehicles a day.
THE BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT Enlarge | Buy This Photo

Some second-shift workers are already training in the plant, with others joining soon. They’ll start by being paired up with first-shift workers to learn their jobs, and by August will split to their own shift.

Mr. Leroux said the two shifts should both be up to speed by sometime in September.

Some of the biggest changes at the plant, which used to build Jeep Liberty and Dodge Nitro SUVs, are in its increased automation.

In the body shop, robots whip doors, hoods, fenders, and lift gates into position and attach them onto the body shell — jobs that were formerly done by hand. Chrysler needs just four workers in that area now.

Another new part of the assembly line is the flexible decking line, a three-level line where suspension components are attached to the chassis and the chassis is affixed to the body. Toledo is the first Chrysler Group assembly plant to use the process, which was developed by Chrysler’s parent company, Fiat.

Chrysler also added a high-tech metrology lab to the complex. The 25,000-square-foot addition is sparkling white from floor to ceiling and filled with high-tech gadgets that give engineers a closer-than-ever look at how parts are fitting together.

“What our customers want is a vehicle that’s smooth, it looks good, it sounds good, it functions properly. ... That’s what we’re trying to meet here in the metrology center,” said Jim Cole, senior manager for metrology at the Toledo Assembly complex.

In the lab, Chrysler is able to check its own processes as well as parts delivered from its suppliers. If there’s a problem in the way parts are fitting together, the lab is able to determine where the issue is and how to fix it.

Though it was brought in for the Cherokee, it also will be used for Wrangler.

Chrysler still hasn’t said exactly when the Cherokee will hit U.S. dealerships. Jeep brand Chief Executive Officer Mike Manley has said he expects sales to start in September but has not given a specific date.

Mr. Manley previously told The Blade the company believes the Cherokee could become Jeep’s top-selling model worldwide.

Chrysler said Thursday the Cherokee will eventually be sold in 150 countries. The Wrangler sells in 84 countries. The Liberty was sold in 58 countries.

Including destination fees, the Cherokee starts at just under $24,000.

Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at: tlinkhorn@theblade.com or 419-724-6134.



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