A smarter way to do business
In March 2007, with more than 3,600 employees working on three shifts at the Belvidere assembly plant, Chrysler officials spoke at the Rockford Chamber of Commerce’s manufacturers expo.
John Felice, a Chrysler vice president and former plant manager in Belvidere, told eager listeners how the automaker turned the 3.7 million-square-foot, 42-year-old plant into the most advanced in the Chrysler system.
Then he talked about the robots the company is developing — robots that can reach in a basket of unsorted parts and find the right one.
The room became very quiet.
“Because that’s what people do at the plant,” said Janyce Fadden, president of the Rockford Area Economic Development Council. “In today’s world, typically it’s the operator’s job to load the machine, and the machine does the work. So far, machines can’t load themselves, but engineers and the technology are moving in that direction.”
That direction is good and bad for places like Belvidere, where the Chrysler plant is the backbone of the economy. The days of 6,200 people working there — the employment level in 1973 — are long gone. But more efficient production gives the plant a better chance at survival, despite the hundreds of auto plants shuttered in the past three decades.
Last week, General Motors Corp. announced the closure of four of its truck-producing plants by 2010 because of a sudden and massive shift of U.S. car buyers away from low-mileage vehicles to more fuel-efficient cars. The closings include Janesville, Wis.
The announcement wasn’t a complete shock. The plant, where 7,000 people worked in 1970, is the oldest in the GM system. And sales of the four SUVs made there — the GMC Yukon and Yukon XL, and the Chevy Suburban and Tahoe — are down 33 percent from 2007 through May.
Janesville and those other three cities aren’t alone. Detroit’s Big Three — GM, Ford and Chrysler — have announced the shutdown of 35 plants since 2005, reports Sean McAlinden, chief economist with the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, along with announced job cuts of nearly 150,000 salaried and hourly employees.
So far, the Belvidere work force has survived the worst of the carnage. The good news is, experts agree that the future of the massive automotive plant turning out row upon row of cars, trucks, minivans and SUVs is solid. It’s just that the number of workers needed to do the work continues to change.
Today’s auto plants have changed substantially since their heyday. Automation and outsourcing have long been chipping away at the jobs available inside the massive operations.
Belvidere’s Chrysler plant is a perfect example. The company cut a shift in March, leaving 2,700 people on two shifts churning out the Dodge Caliber, Jeep Compass and Jeep Patriot. In 1973, the plant’s employment reached an all-time high of 6,200. Today, the body shop is completely automated, thanks to the $419 million renovation that added more than 700 robots to the assembly line in 2005.
The parts that come in to the plant have been placed in order, or “sequenced,” by 400 workers at Syncreon, formerly TDS Automotive, a supplier that has a tunnel connecting its operation to the plant.
“Productivity continues to increase, and the new technologies in use are eliminating jobs that used to be done, but they are also creating some new industries,” Fadden said. “The key for workers of the future is to continue to advance their skill sets. The jobs of today and tomorrow are a lot more sophisticated, but there will be fewer of them.”
David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., said Chrysler’s engine plant in Dundee, Mich., has a minimum educational requirement of a two-year community college degree.
“The old style of manufacturing, where the foreman told you what to do, is being replaced by self-directed work teams,” he said. The Belvidere work force was retrained for the team system in 2005. “You have to be able to make critical decisions. It’s requiring more education each year.”
The future is now
So how long can Belvidere count on Chrysler?
Cole said the plant has a number of things going for it. The 2005-06 renovation means workers can make multiple vehicles on a single production line, including pilot vehicles of new models.
Also, the shift toward fuel-efficient vehicles has caused sales of the Caliber, Compass and Patriot to surge. Each is capable of getting 28 mpg under the right conditions, and U.S. sales of the Caliber, Compass and Patriot are up more than 30 percent, compared with 2007.
Still, Chrysler’s sales overall are down 18 percent. And the company has been battling rumors that its owner, the New York-based private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, has reduced its stake.
“There should be less concern in Belvidere than at other plants,” Cole said. “But this is a very unstable period, and no one should feel completely secure.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story. Alex Gary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (815) 987-1339.
Who makes what & where
In terms of age, Belvidere’s assembly plant is about middle of the road in the company’s system.
Windsor assembly, Ontario, Canada: Opened in 1928, 4 million square feet on 177 acres, produces Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country
Warren truck assembly, Michigan: Opened in 1938, 3.3 million square feet on 87 acres, produces Dodge Ram trucks, Dodge Dakota and Mitsubishi Raider Standard
Toledo North assembly, Ohio: Opened in 1942, 2.1 million square feet on 200 acres, produces Jeep Liberty and Dodge Nitro
Newark assembly, Delaware: Opened in 1951, 3.4 million square feet on 244 acres, produces Dodge Durango and Chrysler Aspen
Sterling Heights assembly, Michigan: Opened in 1953, 3 million square feet on 286 acres, produces Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Avenger
St. Louis South assembly, Fenton, Mo.: Opened in 1959, 2.6 million square feet on 273 acres, produces Dodge Grand Caravan and Dodge Cargo Van and Chrysler Grand Voyager
Belvidere assembly: Opened in 1965, 3.7 million square feet on 280 acres, produces Dodge Caliber, Jeep Compass and Jeep Patriot
St. Louis North assembly, Fenton, Mo.: Opened in 1966, 2.3 million square feet on 69 acres, produces Dodge Ram trucks
Toluca assembly, Mexico: Opened in 1968, 1.6 million square feet on 120 acres, produces Chrysler PT Cruiser and Dodge Journey
Brampton assembly, Ontario: Opened in 1986, 3 million square feet on 269 acres, produces Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger, Dodge Challenger SRT8
Jefferson North assembly, Detroit: Opened in 1991, 2.7 million square feet on 283 acres, produces Jeep Grand Cherokee and Jeep Commander
Saltillo truck assembly, Coahuila, Mexico: Opened in 1995, 212,850 square feet on 48,863 acres, produces Dodge Ram trucks and Sterling trucks, a subsidiary of Freightliner
Connor Avenue assembly, Detroit: Opened in 1996, 392,000 square feet on 27 acres, produces Dodge Viper SRT10 coupe and roadster and V-10 engine
Source: Chrysler LLC