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Chrysler investment paying off at Kokomo plant

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On the cusp of realizing the end result of a historic, $1.3 billion investment in Kokomo's plants, Chrysler officials here and in Detroit, Mich., are riding high.

With a new 8-speed, rear-wheel drive transmission expected to begin rolling out of the Kokomo Transmission Plant later this year, and a new 9-speed, front-wheel drive transmission expected next year, workers are pumped. Executives are pumped.

For Chrysler's head of powertrain manufacturing, Brian Harlow, the new transmission represents a commitment to building cars "from the core."

Improvements to the powertrain, so much more expensive to accomplish than changes to sheet metal and interior surfaces, will move the company forward.

It all began with one decision, Harlow said.

Instead of contracting out transmission building three years ago, Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne decided to keep the work in house.

So Kokomo's plants, which shut down in 2009, have added nearly 1,000 jobs since the company's bankruptcy.

"The plan, prior to Sergio's intervention, was to close (the Kokomo Transmission Plant)," Harlow said. "And the other Kokomo plants wouldn't have been far behind."

During a rare media tour of three of Chrysler's four Kokomo plants Thursday, Harlow and much of the plant leadership talked mainly about the difference the World Class Manufacturing methodology — introduced in 2009 by Fiat — has made at the plants.

They also weren't shy in talking about Chrysler's remarkable turnaround, which has transformed Kokomo operations, turning formerly dark, hot, noisy and not overly clean manufacturing areas into sparkling high-tech showplaces.

At KTP, more than 640,000 square feet — which lay dormant for the past decade — is now filled with the new 8-speed transmission line.

Chrysler spokeswoman Jodi Tinson said "pilot" models of the new transmission will be built next week, as the ramp up toward full production gets under way.

With light-colored floors, leaks from machines will be easier to spot. With machines designed to keep worker tasks in a "golden zone" — directly in front of the worker and between the waist and chest — the belief is that operator errors and waste will be reduced.

Gone are the massive bins full of parts sitting next to machines, sometimes for days, awaiting the hand of the machine operator.

Chrysler is shifting to on-time manufacturing. Line workers have been brought into the design process for the new transmission lines. They're learning multiple tasks, how to run every aspect of complex machinery.

"The idea is to not have one worker who performs one task for 10 seconds, and then waits," said Tyrone Thomas, a manager in the clutch assembly area. "We're trying to eliminate every kind of waste."

Chrysler's 8-speed transmission, with technology courtesy of ZF Friedrichshafen AG, Germany, has already made an international splash in the 300 sedan.

ZF will continue to hold the intellectual property rights on both the 8-speed and the 9-speed, front-wheel drive transmission, which is slated for a first-quarter launch at Indiana Transmission Plant I.

Chrysler is leasing the design and building the transmissions, while ZF is also building a factory in South Carolina to produce transmissions for other manufacturers.

Harlow acknowledged that part of the push to quickly launch the new transmissions — apart from superior shifting — is to increase Chrysler's overall fuel-efficiency.

Increases in federal fuel efficiency standards must be met by each of the manufacturers, and Harlow said vehicles are getting an average 12 percent fuel efficiency increase from the new 8-speed.

Two weeks ago, machines began arriving at KTP for the new 8-speed line.

Since then more than 470 trucks have arrived, and some 600 machines have been installed.

In another area of the 3-million-square-foot KTP, jackhammers are breaking up the floor for the new "Aluminum City," otherwise known as Department 9400.

Large parts for the new 9-speed transmission — which will be assembled at ITP 1 — will be machined at Aluminum City. Cases, bell housings, intermediate plates and valve bodies will all pass through the new department.

Up at ITP 1, two huge assembly lines have been disassembled and moved, to make way for the new 9-speed line.

And at the Kokomo Casting Plant, they're making aluminum engine blocks for the 3.2- and 3.6-liter Pentastar engines.

The level of activity is astounding, said Harlow, who spent five years in senior leadership at the Kokomo plants prior to the bankruptcy.

"Back then, everything was about, how do you make less?" Harlow said. "Everything you're telling (workers) that's coming is bad. How do you motivate them? In the last three years, everything has been about, how do you make more? And we're adding people.".

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  • Chrysler
    Obama didn't rescue Chrysler - they went bankrupt and Fiat bought what was left.
  • No thanks to republicans
    Another example of why it was a good idea to save millions of American jobs by rescuing the AMERICA automakers. While republicans tried to block it, now they try to take credit for it. OBAMA 2012

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