The redesigned 2008 Sebring convertible - going on sale soon in the US and due to be exported worldwide in both left- and right-hand-drive forms later this year - is an example of Chrysler Group's expanding flexible manufacturing strategy (FMS), which allows the company to bring its new vehicles to market more quickly, and the Sterling Heights (Michigan) assembly plant (SHAP) to manufacture multiple products on one assembly line, the automaker said this week.

The Sebring convertible will be built alongside the sedan version and the Dodge Avenger, launched earlier into production at the plant.

"We are seeing a great deal of success at the Sterling Heights facility due to the commitment of our plant employees," claimed Frank Ewasyshyn, Chrysler's executive vice president of manufacturing. "Their willingness to support and foster a small-team workplace model has delivered a successful third vehicle launch."

Sterling Heights assembly plant and stamping plant were extensively retooled starting in March 2006 to manage the complexity of building multiple models on one production line. The Sebring convertible programme is part of a $500m investment, which included multiple plant upgrades to improve quality, productivity and worker ergonomics.

Chrysler spent $278m on the assembly plant to overhaul the body shop and improve the paint shop and assembly areas, including new tooling and about 620 new welding and material handling robots.

"The assembly operation now has the capability to build multiple upper bodies and multiple vehicle families or architectures, which gives us the flexibility to add new models or 'cross-load' models from other plants in order to better meet the dynamics of the market," said Fred Goedtel, vice president-small/premium/family vehicle assembly.

Since the rollout of Chrysler's FMS in 2000, it has been the template for the automaker's plant modernisation. Sterling assembly and stamping, along with Belvidere assembly plant, are the pioneers of this strategy, allowing the company to bring the right products to the market at the right time. SHAP is now able to vary the production mix between three product models and pilot a fourth.

"In addition, the Sterling stamping plant can weld and assemble more than one product on the same line. These new capabilities will support the company's pursuit of product leadership by providing flexibility and efficiently managing increased distinction between the Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge brands," said Goedtel.

FMS allows the company to produce a higher quality product faster, and for a lower cost. In order to balance production with demand, the FMS approach allows the company to efficiently build lower-volume vehicles that take advantage of market niche, and to quickly shift production volumes between different models within a single plant or among multiple plants.

FMS is being implemented product by product and plant by plant across the group. New investment is introducing the latest technology to the plants, allowing the company to produce more than one vehicle on a production line and conduct rolling launches of new models. Additionally, the workforce is becoming more flexible with the implementation of team concepts and an increased emphasis on supporting assembly line operators.

Robotics

At the core of the new manufacturing process at Sterling Heights assembly is a body shop comprised of 620 new robots instead of the vehicle-specific heavy tooling that was previously used, giving a total of 784 robots in the body shop. Only the robots' end effectors, or 'hands', need to change in order to build the different models. The tool change is done automatically, within the time it takes to cycle from one vehicle to the next.

A fourth model can also be piloted (test-built) at the same time, helping reduce the time needed to make new-model changeovers.

The trim, chassis and final (TCF) areas received a new glass cell, windscreen decking, chassis insertion loop system, fluid fill equipment and roll-test machines. Each of these improved processes has contributed favourably to the plant's overall productivity and efficiency efforts, Chrysler claimed.

Smart Manufacturing

A new workplace organisation model, named 'Smart Manufacturing', is increasing the flexibility of the SHAP workforce, while fostering greater creativity and innovation from plant employees. This model is being implemented throughout the Chrysler manufacturing organisation in conjunction with the United Auto Workers (UAW) union. In addition to extensive training, the new workplace model promotes employee involvement in all facets in the design and processing of the workstations. These changes provide a better work environment for employees and give increased support to assembly line team members while improving safety, quality, delivery, cost and morale, Chrysler said.