Chrysler Group is investing up to $1 billion in its St. Louis North and St. Louis South Assembly Plants to modernise and re-tool the facilities - in particular to give the latter the ability to build different vehicle types on one assembly line.

Ironically, the news comes at the same time as speculation surrounds the future of a Ford assembly plant in St Louis which could be closed as part of a review of Ford manufacturing facilities to be announced next month.

The Chrysler plants, located in Fenton, Mo., currently build multiple variations of the Dodge Ram (North), and Chrysler and Dodge minivans (South), respectively. Part of the investment will provide St. Louis South with the capability to manufacture multiple types of vehicles on one line.

This will make the south facility the third Chrysler assembly plant to implement a fully robotic body shop, giving it the ability to automatically adjust to build multiple models without any tool change downtime.

"The investment helps to ensure the future viability of both plants," a Chrysler statement noted.

Equipment, facility and process changes will begin in 2006 as the plants continue to build vehicles. The investment also is expected to reduce new-model changeover downtime.

Both plants will continue to implement "smart manufacturing" processes, which foster greater creativity and innovation on the plant floor. Smart processes include work teams, self-designed work stations, a framework for flexible job classifications and extensive employee training. All these factors work cohesively to create a better work environment and give increased support to assembly line operators.

St. Louis South was constructed in 1959 and employs 3,200 people. St. Louis North, built in 1966, employs 2,300.