Chrysler equips robots to fight off Asian challenge

Aug 2 | Updated: Aug 3 2005, 05:30am hrs
DaimlerChrysler AGs Chrysler will turn to robots that can switch tools every 42 seconds and adapt to different designs to build cars and trucks faster as the company aims to match Toyota Motor Corp. and other Asian automakers in manufacturing speed.

Chrysler, the No 3 US automaker, will start the first widespread use of the robots in January for a new car at its Belvidere, Illinois, factory, manufacturing chief Frank Ewasyshyn said in an interview. The plan will spread to other plants as new models are introduced. The robots let Chrysler build as many as four vehicles on one assembly line, which Toyota and Honda Motor Co. already can do.

This is state of the art, but the bad news from our standpoint is were late getting to the party, said Ewasyshyn. In some respects, were better off because we can better take advantage of new technology in the last five years.

Chrysler spent about $5 billion over the last two years to upgrade its North American assembly plants to add the ability to build multiple vehicles at each plant and switch to different models more quickly. Chrysler chief operating officer Tom LaSorda, who takes over as chief executive at the end of the year, has promised to catch Toyota and other rivals in manufacturing speed by 2007.

Automakers need to be able to switch between different models more quickly because customers want more variety in new cars and trucks, Mr Ewasyshyn said. A decade ago, a plant could typically make 250,000 of a single model each year. Now, as the market becomes more fragmented, automakers may have to build as few as 50,000 of one type of car or truck, and that means switching between different models more often, he said.

This is going to continue to be a rapidly evolving strategy in the industry, said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Its a very fast track because everybody is trying to do the same thing.

The $419 million Illinois upgrade, which includes about 400 additional robots, from Zurich-based ABB Ltd., was half what the automaker would normally spend to get a plant ready for a new model, Ewasyshyn said. A similar strategy is planned for a Sterling Heights, Michigan, plant that will add about 620 robots in the next year. Augsburg, Germany-based Kuka Robot Group and Fiat SpA subsidiary Pico Comau also participated in the project, he said.

Chrysler will be able to build a Dodge and two Jeep models on the same line at Belvidere, instead of just the Neon model it builds now, Michael Robinet, an analyst with CSM Worldwide Inc. in Farmington, Michigan, said.