The new Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio, is the first factory to be built by DaimlerChrysler since the former Daimler-Benz and Chrysler Corp. merged in November 1998. At just over $5 per square meter, with full air conditioning, it has proved cheaper to build than any other plant in the DaimlerChrysler portfolio.
Ideas and new technologies from Stuttgart have helped the Toledo plant improve flexibility and quality while minimizing costs, says Frank Ewasyshyn, DaimlerChrysler's senior vice president of manufacturing and engineering.
The Toledo plant will produce the next-generation Jeep Cherokee, due in the summer of 2001.
One good example of a tool Mercedes-Benz manufacturing brought to the plant is a robotic head used to apply sealant to body panels as they are installed.
Ed Mercer, manager of the Toledo plant, calls it simply 'the Sindelfingen system,' after Mercedes-Benz's massive manufacturing complex in Sindelfingen, Germany.
Sealant is applied to just about every panel that makes up the interior compartment of the vehicle: the floor pan, quarter panels that are attached to the floor pan, the attachment point between the floor pan and the firewall.
The traditional way of applying sealant was problematic. Imagine a thick bead of glue run along two rulers. When the rulers are pressed tightly together, excess glue spurts out.
That was exactly what happened with the old pneumatic system, which squeezed out a set bead of sealant regardless of how quickly the application head was moving over the surface.
The system Jeep is borrowing from Sindelfingen uses a gear-driven robotic head that is programmed to reduce the flow of sealant as the head moves slowly over complex areas of a body panel.
'By using the system that we saw at Sindelfingen, we now are getting an exact, even bead in every millimeter of that whole surface we are sealing, by much better control of the disbursement as the robot head is accelerating and decelerating across the surfaces,' Mercer says.
The machinery is significantly more expensive, according to Mercer, but the company believes quality improvements will make the investment worthwhile.
'Those messes that we would have created - which then lead to potential contamination of the paint process or possibly an interference to other parts installations in the body shop or assembly - are all negated,' Mercer says.
Another key area for applying sealants is around the rear aperture of the vehicle, an area Mercer calls the D-ring.
'It's extremely critical that we have just the right amount of sealant there or we end up with a visual problem on the finished product,' Mercer said.
With its tumbling stock price and the departures of key executives, DaimlerChrysler has taken some criticism in recent months over the value of the merger. Much of the criticism has focused on what analysts see as a lack of sharing.
But examples of sharing abound in engineering and manufacturing, says Ron Harbour, a manufacturing consultant with Harbour And Associates Inc. in Troy, Michigan. 'Some of the other [synergies] are not as obvious to the casual observer as walking through the plant and seeing something,' Harbour says.
Another innovation brought over from Europe and installed in the new Jeep plant is what DaimlerChrysler manufacturing executives call 'the gummiband.' Gummibands are steel-reinforced Kevlar strips on which the automobile rides as it travels along final assembly.
The new Toledo plant has more than 1,200 meters of the tough belt replacing what was traditionally a steel belt. The steel belts clank and groan and are prone to breaking, Mercer points out. The new belt should remain in place, with little or no maintenance, for up to 10 years.
And it will be quiet. The old, clanging steel treads are 'kind of like Chinese water torture,' according to Harbour. 'From an operator's standpoint, [the gummiband] is comfortable to stand on, and it's quiet,' he says.
Another shared piece of Mercedes-Benz technology is a machine that installs door weather seals. Installing weather seals often results in shoulder, elbow and wrist problems for the operator, Mercer says. The new robot takes over the task, eliminating those ergonomic problems.
The robot presses the weather stripping at the edge of the aperture. Using a small application device with a couple of rollers, it slowly presses the stripping along the groove.
The intangible benefits of reducing discomfort and stress - and creating a happier, more comfortable work force and higher-quality products - is the goal of technology sharing, Mercer says.
'It's a simple, good use of technology to both help people and build a better product,' he adds. 'When people are getting hurt doing their jobs, they are not effective.'