A Look Behind the LH Launch

The last Intrepid of the first-generation Chrysler LH cars was produced at the car maker’s plant in Bramalea, Ontario, on July 27, 1997. In the five years that the LH cars were in production, 1,450,000 units were produced. “The product has had a good run for us,” said John Miller, who was the executive engineer for that program. Understatement, indeed. In 1989, when that car was in clay, Chrysler needed a big boost in the car market, which the LH initiated. As Miller put it, the LH “put Chrysler on the map” as a producer of well-styled cars that provide performance and cost effectiveness.

From the product development standpoint, LH was a signal event in the traditional North American auto industry as it inaugurated the use of cross-functional platform teams.

“It was the start of a whole new series of products,” Miller noted. Neon…Ram truck…Cirrus/Stratus…new minivan…Prowler …It, figuratively, put Chrysler on a roll.

Three years ago, Miller recalled, there was a big question facing a platform team at Chrysler’s Auburn Hills, Michigan, headquarters/tech center campus: “What do we do with this product?” After all, the LH was a high-demand product. In fact, in ’97 the demand was greater than in ’96. Miller was one of the people pondering the question. He moved from being executive engineer to general manager, Large Car Platform Engineering. LH is a “large car” in Chrysler parlance.

Miller admitted that one alternative would be to re-skin the LH, to modify the sheet metal and carry over the chassis and powertrain. Once, that probably would have been the approach. But not for today’s Chrysler. So as not to abandon the roots of what is generating market success for the corporation, they decided that they would work for:

1. Bold, aggressive styling

2. Performance and fuel economy that would be competitive into the next decade (10% better fuel economy; 20% better performance)

3. More model separation (e.g., make the Concorde distinctly different from the Intrepid)

4. Maintaining the vehicles’ “fun-to-drive” attributes

5. Producing a platform that takes into account the fact that the competitors in the market haven’t stopped improving their products.

“It wasn’t computer technology that enabled it, but how we use CATIA in our process orientation that’s important,” said Bob Trecapelli, Advanced CAD/CAM research engineer at Chrysler. CATIA, of course, from Dassault Systemes, is Chrysler’s CAD/CAM package of choice (“We make it clear for any supplier,” Miller said, “that they must be fully CATIA capable. It is a requirement for doing business with us.”). Although CATIA is important to the LH product development program, Trecapelli’s point is that it is the methodology and the approach taken by Chrysler engineers for the development, not the use of the computer software in and of itself, that made the difference. One word that Chrysler engineers frequently use is “tool.” CATIA is a tool.

So, for example, Frank Ewasyshyn, vice president, Advanced Manufacturing Engineering, Chrysler, said that in the case of performing the launch for the LH at Bramalea, two things are proving to be most beneficial:

1. Knowledge from prior launches. The manufacturing team has been working very hard to execute launches more efficiently and they are carefully recording what things have gone right/wrong so that they can be more confident as time goes on. “We can leverage off of each model we’ve built,” he remarked. For example, he pointed out that there was a lot of beneficial learning from the Prowler in regards to processing aluminum closure panels: the hood on the Concorde is being produced with aluminum. Formability, hemming, and attaching aluminum components (the last-named includes a combination of adhesives and riveting) were things that the LH team learned from Prowler. With regard to a lot of the way that the vehicle is processed through the plant, Ewasyshyn said that things learned on the JA program (i.e., Cirrus/Stratus) were brought forward for use on LH.

2. Accurate virtual models. Ewasyshyn said that they have done a whole lot more modeling on this set of vehicles than had been done on those previously launched by Chrysler. “In this case, we simulated the actual process, not just cycle-time related issues,” he explained, adding that in this process, they did plenty of computer modeling—the building, the tooling, the machinery—that permitted the discovery of issues before things were actually manufactured and put on the shop floor at Bramalea.

He cited, for example, a benefit in tooling development. He estimated that through the use of the virtual work, there have been 15 to 20% fewer changes in the tool design than there would be under typical circumstances. “We could spend more time refining things before we made it. When we shipped the body side tooling, the capability was at full cycle rate,” Ewasyshyn said. John Miller observed that when they were trying to deck the first prototype vehicle in 1993, it took three months to get things straight. Thanks to the implementation of the CATIA system, they were able to deck the first car on this go through in four minutes. But even with all of this—and there are a multitude of other examples of the benefits of the use of the digital domain—the Chrysler people warn that its importance shouldn’t be exaggerated. John Miller stated: “The power of the tool is its ability to communicate.”

It permitted all of the people involved in the development to have the most current information available so that there was not a problem of someone working on something without being aware that there had been a revision. The digital model was continually kept current. Engineers of various types were able to see whether there were any interferences or other issues in an up-to-date manner. Ewasyshyn stated, “You can’t ignore the experience base of the people, people who may have done it the old way.” He said that their learning and know-how are important aspects to the development of the product and the process. “It’s not just a technical solution.”

In other words, it isn’t the company with the biggest, best and fastest computers that will make the best car. It is the company that finds the right balance between their people and the technology. And it is the one that actually encourages its people to use the tools that are available to them (“That’s what the Chrysler Operating System tries to teach,” Ewasyshyn observed).


What Are They Looking for in a Process?

According to Frank Faga, director, Large Car Platform, Advanced Manufacturing Engineering, Chrysler, “When we look at a process from a manufacturing point of view, we are concerned with (1) safety, (2) ensuring that we can meet the quality target, (3) good delivery, (4) cost control, (5) morale.”

But it isn’t the process alone that makes the difference in the success of a product. Faga pointed out that although the approach taken at Chrysler is to “put quality into a station; the worse thing we can do is to put detection after a station,” he added, “It is important to have product and process working together to prevent defects.”


Beyond the Platform Teams

Information sharing is a key to producing better vehicles. One of the things that Chrysler launched with the original LH cars was the cross-functional platform teams. With the new LH, they have formed a new organizational format. It’s called “the umbrella team.” As John Miller, general manager, Large Car Platform Engineering, described it, “Before, for example, no one was responsible for the temperature under the hood. Vehicle development would have to go around and talk to each section of the vehicle that was involved and try to get things resolved. Now a team deals with it.”

Umbrella teams have been set up for: thermal; noise, vibration and harshness (NVH); information; comfort; and impact.

In the case of the NVH team, there are representatives from groups that have an effect on NVH, such as powertrain and body structure. In the case of comfort, which tackles ergonomic issues, even the seat supplier for the LH, Johnson Controls, is represented on the team.