It all started with a single question: “How can we do better? From there, Stellantis, then Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), put the people and plans in place to improve the quality of their products.
Initial product quality has been a general issue for companies that were previously under the FCA umbrella (Alfa Romeo, Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, Jeep, Maserati and Ram) for years. Dodge made the news last year when they joined Kia for the top spot in the JD Power 2020 Initial Quality Study. It was the first time in 34 years that an American automaker had topped the platoon.
This study details the issues faced by owners of current model year vehicles during the first 90 days of ownership. “Jeep and Stellantis brand owners in general have historically reported more initial quality issues than average,” said Dave Sargent, vice president of automotive quality, JD Power.
Stellantis’ Mack factory was shut down in 2012 and is in need of a makeover. As product plans solidified, Jeep chose the next-gen Grand Cherokee as the model that would christen the new facility, which adjoins the company’s Jefferson plant north of Detroit, together forming the Detroit Assembly Complex.
The Mack Factory site has been a manufacturing facility for the automotive industry since 1916. Its rise and fall over the past century reflects the history of Detroit itself. The current iteration is a combination of a refurbished assembly building that was built in the 1990s and new facilities that were built as part of a $ 1.6 billion investment announced in 2019. It This is the first new assembly plant built in Detroit in 30 years.
Construction of the new facility began in the second quarter of 2019. It was swift with completion less than two years later. The three million square feet of floor space is part of the larger 266-acre site, which houses the company’s Jeep Grand Cherokee L and the upcoming facilities of the Grand Cherokee base and 4xe body shop, the painting and general assembly workshop.
The development of a typical vehicle follows a series of stages from conceptualization to approval, through manufacture and launch. Jeep’s Grand Cherokee L team recruited the manufacturing team earlier, a full six months before, in an effort to put the quality of the vehicle in the spotlight.
Part of this process involved participating in the design of the company’s new Mack plant layout. Jeep wasn’t remodeling a factory like an automaker typically would with the introduction of a generational overhaul. They started with a metal and concrete shell, allowing them to fully customize the manufacturing process.
Automotive product planners, engineers, and designers typically work in a pyramid style of reporting with management at the top. Tom Seel, vehicle line manager for the Jeep Grand Cherokee L, explained that for the next-gen SUV and the Mack factory, Jeep has turned the formula around, putting the customer first.
Mack’s more than 4,900 employees support this critical mission. Focusing on the customer means creating an empowered workforce that feels personally responsible for the quality of the product being offered for sale. Because the factory and most of its staff were new to the business, the Jeep team has the opportunity to create a culture, not just seek to change it. They want employees to own and be proud of the vehicles that come off the line. “It was an opportunity to set a new precedent,” said Mario Holmes, model manager, Jeep Grand Cherokee L, “It’s their car.”
This triggered a fundamental change in the approach to the manufacturing process. The company removed experienced workers from other factories and put them in charge. They hired a workforce that slowly completed the onboarding and training process. The first shift started last summer and the second and third shifts started working in March and April respectively.
Mack factory staff encourage their employees not to let anything go that is not perfect. As a reminder of this commitment, signs are hung at almost every station in the factory with the words “Building Flawless. Accept no defect. Ship flawless ”.
If a worker sees a defect, he is responsible for pulling the andon handle, which stops the production line. The goal is to identify the problem, find out what can be done, and fix it on the spot rather than waiting for the vehicle to come off the chain, go to the dealership, be sold, and then be recalled. . This formula is designed to save customers, dealers and Jeep time and money.
In addition, instead of waiting for each vehicle to be tested until the end of production, workers test them at three separate points, allowing any problems to be detected early in the production process rather than at the end of the production process. chain or when the model reaches a dealer.
There are new tests on every Grand Cherokee L that are not performed on the current generation Grand Cherokee – Buzz, Squeak and Rattle (BSR) and the nine position water test. BSR tests allow plant workers to take the vehicle through a series of 11 simulated obstacles (potholes, manhole covers, rough strips, cobblestones, speed bumps and gravel among them) to see if the vehicle components fail at some point.
The nine-position water test simulates a variety of terrain, including hills and slopes, and weather conditions. Every vehicle goes through these tests, and a series of others. Anyone that does not meet all of the criteria is subject to further inspection and is not allowed to ship until the issue has been resolved.
These tests are new to the plant as part of the business redo. BSR testing is only performed at another US-based Stellantis plant – Sterling Heights Assembly, home of the Ram 1500. The water test is equally unique, only being performed elsewhere in the complex. assembly of Toledo where the Jeep Wrangler and Gladiator are built.
There is a sense of urgency about the quality of the whole operation. Mack plant managers meet every morning at 6 a.m. to discuss downtime and wasted time, and try to resolve issues rather than wait for a weekly or monthly meeting.
Mechanical engineers have been moved to the factory, working on the site where the vehicle they are responsible for is produced, creating a more cohesive partnership from design to manufacturing where teams can work together while being directly with the product, meet the employees who assemble it and interact with the supplies that are delivered.
Data mining also plays a vital role in the manufacturing quality control process. Jeep contracted with an external supplier to create My Customer Voice, a data mining system that analyzes repair information sent by dealerships and transmits identifiable trends to production line managers at the Mack plant. The effort is aimed at answering questions about installation issues, supplier part defects, and design flaws as soon as possible.
In 2020, JD Power reported that for the first time in 15 years of survey monitoring, Jeep performed better than average in initial quality testing, but this score was strongly affected by the removal of models. issues of the company’s range. Sargent notes that over the next few years Jeep will “introduce several important new products”, which would be a challenge for any automaker and “a good test of the progress the company is making.”