January 10, 2013 , Detroit – The sign above the front door of the Chrysler Group LLC facility just south of 8 Mile in Detroit says, “Home of Viper. Detroit. Handcrafted. Horsepower.,” perfect words to characterize what is happening inside. After nearly two years in hibernation, the Conner Avenue Assembly Plant is rumbling to life as it opens its doors to produce the next generation SRT Viper.
“With no plans for the future, Conner Avenue was on life support when it closed in the summer of 2010,” said Doug Gouin, Head of Viper Operations. “Now, with a transfusion of passion, determination, World Class Manufacturing and an all-new vehicle, the plant has been revived. You can feel the energy and excitement about what is happening inside when you walk through the door.”
With the decision made to reopen Conner, the team went to work beginning in the fall of 2011 to implement World Class Manufacturing (WCM), Fiat’s production system that Chrysler adopted when the two companies joined forces in June 2009. WCM is a methodology that makes employee safety the number one priority, focusing on eliminating waste, increasing productivity, improving quality, and restoring dignity to the employees.
As part of the journey, every inch of the nearly 400,000 square-foot facility has been refurbished and improved, including the lobby, where a historical Viper timeline now hangs, to the 14 restrooms, to the shop floor, which is now hospital-clean, bright and more organized to increase the efficiency of each operation.
“Our goal is to be the best manufacturing plant within the Chrysler Group in the fastest time,” said Gouin, who can make such a bold statement because he’s already seen rapid change at Conner.
“A year ago, Conner had the worst score in the company on an I.T. audit,” said Gouin. “At the next audit, after 12 months of focused attention and sheer determination, Conner scored 94 percent, the highest score in the company. This is the kind of progress I expect to see throughout the plant as we move forward.”
With all of the improvements, the Conner Avenue Assembly Plant now looks like a modern, state-of-the-art facility, even though it bows to its coach builder philosophy.
The plant still maintains the handcrafted build process that added to the mystique of the Viper when it began production in 1992. About 150 specially-selected employees, some who worked at the plant when it was idled in July 2010, meticulously assemble each component with complete attention to detail and quality. For every member of the Viper team, it is truly a labor of love.
“The people that work here are amazing car builders,” said Gouin. “They are committed to delivering the best quality vehicle possible to our customers. Some of them are Viper owners themselves, so the job becomes very personal. They know they are keepers of the Viper legacy.”
Once the plant idled, all of the employees were redeployed to other Chrysler Group facilities, but hoped that they would have the chance to return to their home plant. About 60 of them jumped at the chance when the opportunity arose.
“It was a sad day for all of us at Conner when production ended and the plant closed,” said Greg Rinehardt, a Team Leader who has been with Viper since 1994. “There is a sense of pride about being part of the Viper team. It is something very unique and special. We were grateful when they decided to bring Viper back and gave us the opportunity to be part of the future.”
Changes on the Line
In preparation for the launch of the next generation Viper, every job on the line was re-balanced so the daily build could increase by four vehicles to a total of 12 per day. As a result, each operator has between 100-200 elements to complete during each 32 minute cycle.
“The changes we made to each operation along the line will help improve the overall quality and efficiency of the build,” said Gouin.
The SRT Viper begins to take shape on the chassis line. The frame is shipped to Conner from an outside supplier in Kentucky to begin its five to six day journey down the assembly line.
With a nod to modern production techniques and a focus on quality, Conner now has its first robots on the floor. The five robots that make up the Net Form & Pierce cell move the frame in and out five times during the 32 minute cycle, punching holes and creating features in the Viper frame to create the dimensional environment to hang panels such as the hood, deck lids, doors and fenders. Drag strip lights indicate what stage of the process the frame is in. At the conclusion of the cycle, the frame exits the cell with the instrument panel installed.
Along the chassis line, the operators turn the steel frame into a fully functioning, driveable “go cart” that looks more like something out of a science fiction movie than the sleek, American muscle car that will ultimately hit the road. Operators install all of the components that make the Viper run, like front and rear suspension, rear brakes, exhaust, fuel tank and the V-10 engine.
As before, the legendary Viper V-10 engine is assembled at Conner along six stations with room for expansion, but now its all-important pistons are also built up onsite. Pistons for the previous generation Viper came already assembled from Chrysler’s Saltillo, Mexico Engine Plant. To ensure the maximum performance quality of each engine, all V-10s are now 100 percent dyno tested before finding a home in the new vehicle.
“The engine is one of the hallmarks of the Viper, so it is critical that its performance can support the legacy,” said Gouin. “Moving the piston build to Conner and dyno testing every engine allows for better quality control, which is important when you’re building an American muscle car like this.”
Before wheels and tires are installed, the vehicle goes through the aligner, a piece of equipment that has been fully refurbished, to ensure proper camber alignment.
The last stop on the chassis line before moving to the final line is the roll test. Conner repurposed the rolls previously used for Prowler production, but needed to make the rolls pit nine feet longer and five feet wider in order to accommodate cars with cladding.
Once the rolling chassis and its V-10 engine are validated in the rolls station, it heads to the final line, where body panels, seats, window glass, and other interior and exterior components come together in sequence to form that easily recognizable Viper shape.
Like most Chrysler Group assembly plants, Conner now also has a state-of-the-art Metrology Center, equipped with upgraded CMM capabilities and a Quality Assurance Fixture, to verify and maintain the dimensional quality of the new Viper.
The entire facility now has WiFi to support the use of RF (radio frequency) reporting tools throughout. These portable tools are used to assemble the car and help verify that the right torque is used in each assembly operation. Having wireless tools eliminates possible trip hazards and reduces maintenance costs.
With the implementation of WCM, Conner is reducing the amount of line side inventory – considered waste – by doing more kitting. Kits, which include specific components for each station, are assembled in an adjacent kitting area and are then delivered just in time and just in sequence to the operator on the line.
Previously, all Vipers were shipped to an outside supplier for the application of the stripes. Now, panels are delivered in sequence pre-finished with stripes, eliminating nearly two weeks from the assembly timing.
Once a Viper rolls off the line, it proceeds to headlight aim, which now employs the same exacting equipment used at other hi-tech plants, and emissions testing, followed by a five-minute water test. All vehicles undergo a final electronic check before going to the covered shipping area. Vipers are then loaded onto covered carriers for delivery to their anxious new owners.
Changes not Limited to the Assembly Line
Just as important as the changes to the assembly line are the changes that have been made to the building itself.
The signage throughout the plant reflects the racing heritage of the Viper. Aisles are named for famous racing venues like Sebring and Nürburgring, and are color coded to match the columns. The walkways have checkered flag decals indicating pedestrian zones.
To brighten the appearance inside the plant, more than 2,000 light bulbs were replaced with energy efficient T-8 fluorescent bulbs and the ceiling was painted white. Twenty-four giant ceiling fans provide air circulation, eliminating the need for personal cooling devices that could present safety hazards.
For the first time, eight Andon boards, common place in larger assembly plants, have been incorporated along the line to report the status of daily production to line operators. Additionally, 27 TV monitors are now located throughout the plant to support improved plant communication.
The administration building was also completely refurbished with new carpet, tile, and bathroom cabinetry and countertops made of materials that contain more than 40 percent recycled content. A state-of-the-art sound system was added to the main conference room.
At the suggestion of an employee, the plant turned 4,922 square-feet of its green space into a produce garden that includes cucumbers, peas, tomatoes, watermelons, pumpkins, cantaloupe, green peppers and beans. The plant partnered with Operation Get Down, a nonprofit, community-based agency serving the east side of Detroit since 1971, to support those in need in the community. In its first year, the plant donated more than 1,500 pounds of fresh produce plus more than 2,200 pounds of non-perishable food items.
“While the Viper put this plant on the map, it is the people that make it come alive,” said Gouin. “Their passion for the customer, the community and each other is what makes this facility and the vehicle we build, unlike anything else in the industry.”