Engineering and Building the Neon: Triumph of 1993
The Neon was a stunning achievement for Chrysler, fresh from its victories of the LH sedans and the new Ram trucks. Chrysler suddenly brought out first an outstanding large car, then the best-in-class (by a wide margin) pickup - rapidly tripling its market share - and finally the first American small car in recent memory to actually make a profit. The Neon was bigger than its competitors, but it was also faster, felt better, and had far better handling. It quickly started to win at the track, and dealers charged well over list - something they had not been able to do for a Chrysler small car for quite some time.
Chrysler had, for roughly the cost of converting the Daytona and Acclaim into the Shadow, built a completely new car, one that could easily outrun the competition - while having more interior space, good gas mileage, and superior handling. To top it off, the Neon had lovable styling.
Chrysler was proud of the Neon. They had made it more environmentally friendly than past cars; had involved workers more; and had done more in safety and quality. Unfortunately, a large number of design flaws were to appear and destroy the small car's reputation, but assembly quality still seems higher than past models.
Photos on this page were taken by Chrysler Corporation in 1994 at the Belvidere factory, and were part of the Neon's launch press kit. The fact that they were released shows some of the pride Chrysler had at the time, a pride that disappeared shortly after the Daimler takeover.
The following sections will tell you why the Neon was a great success - and also why its construction quality was high, despite engineering and supplier glitches that marred its reputation. It's a story of involving plant employees and customers, of good engineering principles, of innovation, and of a spirit which we can only hope will return to Chrysler.
Some brief notes
- Cost: $1 .3 billion, including two body styles, two and four doors; new engines; new manual transmission; two satellite stamping plants (Belvidere and Toluca); new satellite fascia plant (Belvidere); renovations to two assembly facilities (Belvidere and Toluca).
- By comparison, the Ford Contour cost $6 billion (worldwide) to develop but was generally rated below the Dodge Stratus. The Neon was generally rated as the top small car - Consumer Reports being an exception.
- 31 Months from program approval to Job 1 (first day of production)
- 740 people on development team, on average; includes other Small Car Platform products (unlike LH Team)
- Went on sale January, 1994 (two-doors on sale September, 1994)
- Four-doors for export markets went on sale in June, 1994
- New 2.0-liter, 16-valve, single overhead cam (SOHC) - standard on all models;
- 132 hp (98 kW) @ 6,000 rpm; 129 lb. ft. (175 Nm) @ 5,000 rpm
- (Most other cars in its class had 100 hp or less; Civic had a 125 hp option, but with only 100 lb-ft of torque.)
- Double overhead cam (DOHC) engine - standard on all Sport models in November, 1994 - 150 hp
- Standard driver & passenger air bags
- Available integrated child safety seat - a wonderful feature!
- Available anti-lock brakes (at a time when that was not the standard)
Plant workers involved and empowered
"It used to be that the engineers handed off the project to the assembly plant 28 weeks before volume production began," said Keith Nelson, Belvidere launch coordinator. "Belvidere's workers, however, stepped in to begin working on the Neon 186 weeks before Job One."
With an invitation to actively participate in the early development process, the Belvidere work force pitched right in with an enthusiasm and tenacity rarely seen before in the U.S. auto industry.
"This is the first time in my 30 years in this business that hourly people and management all sat down at the same table and brainstormed the car from birth to when we put it out to pasture," said Lynn Baker, an assembly technician.
At various stages of Neon development, as literally bus loads of engineers traveled en masse to ready the car for production at Belvidere, the Belvidere manufacturing cadre -- 1,500 employees, or half the plant's work force -- went on periodic training trips to the Chrysler Technology Center (CTC) in Auburn Hills, Mich.
Their participation continued at Belvidere itself. It included workers from the paint shop, body shop, trim, chassis, production control, skilled trades and the satellite stamping and fascia plants.
Along the way, many shared some unique experiences. for example, they drove the competition's cars -- Honda Civic, Saturn, and Toyota Corolla - for comparison to the Neon. A group of plant workers even accompanied engineers doing customer research at a ride-and-drive program in San Diego. They learned first-hand what customers really wanted the Neon to be.
Work force involvement, which began in early 1992, was mutually advantageous, both sides agree. While the plant personnel got heavy doses of training from the 80 process engineers on site, their inputs often convinced engineers there might be a better way to get a job done. Many of the 4,000 employee suggestions not only were incorporated into the product itself, but in more efficient, ergonomic methods of putting the car together. They knew from experience. And the engineers responded.
Two workers, Ron Swain and Gary Smoot, suggested changes to the Neon's door- installation equipment so the glass would fit perfectly. Since Neon's design includes no upper door frame to guide the glass, even the slightest gap could cause wind noise or water leaks.
"Employees influenced the design of the setting fixture right from the beginning," said Frank Ewasyshyn, general manager--Large Car and Small Car Assembly Operations. "They changed the handles, changed the sequence, changed almost everything in the early stages."
Once a tool is set and handed to the operator, Ewosyshyn contends, the operator isn't likely to offer any input, other than if it doesn't work.
"This time, they were part of the development group," he continued. "They're part of the actual development activity and, in the end, it really is their tool. They have ownership, which makes a big difference."
Other employees were instrumental in the development of assist arms -- ergonomic tools -- used to move or load various components or systems into the cars as they travel down the assembly line.
"In the post, the instrument panel tooling, for example, would be developed somewhere in the engineer group," said Ewasyshyn. "It would be built and the first time the operator would see it would be the day he or she showed up on the job to use the tool. This time the employees were port of the development process. They worked with the right from the beginning. They helped us in determining the best place for the suppliers [missing] handles, what the handles should look like, how fast the tool should move, whether or not they should be motorized. We used their inputs extensively."
As an extension to the platform team concept, and aided by a unique local agreement with the United Auto Workers union, Belvidere management was able to send the large numbers of plant personnel to CTC for hands-on training at the pilot plant there.
"Normally, if you're just running one shift -- which was the case in early 1992 with the previously assembled products -- the night shift is taken off," explained Ewasyshyn. "Because of our unique relationship with the local union, we were allowed to operate two weeks with one shift, then two weeks with the other. In this way, we could send the people from the second shift to CTC for training."
Belvidere, which until recently produced the now phased-out Dodge Dynasty and the former Chrysler New Yorker and Imperial models, was chosen to assemble the Neon partly because much of its work force had previous experience in building the Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon small cars in the late 1970s.
"It's a mature work force," agreed Ewasyshyn. "Many of the operators have been there 20 years or more. But they were receptive to the new ways of the Neon program."
One of the key elements of the program's success, Ewosyshyn believes, not only was the direct employee involvement in the development process, but employees could see their ideas and suggestions weren't falling on deaf ears.
"Any time you do something different like this, there is a certain amount of skepticism," he said. "Employees weren't always sure where we were coming from. But once they got into the process and began to influence and change the car they realized we were really serious.
"That's been demonstrated in the plant already and you can see it clearly in the enthusiasm of the work force. It really is their process ... their car. They had a lot of input, we paid a lot of attention to it. That really is a big product advantage." From the Belvidere work force standpoint, the reaction has been equally enthusiastic. Typical examples:
"There's been fantastic communication between all of us," said technician Baker. "Engineers sat down and explained to us why they couldn't do a certain thing our way and we told them why we had to have it that way. We were able to work out a solution together. I think we've had one of the smoothest launches in the history of Chrysler by being able to work together."
Employee Jim McDaniel offered another perspective:
"The engineers have the technology and the design, but what they couldn't picture in their minds was someone doing a job producing 72 cars on hour, day in and day out. When they made a part and took it down to the pilot plant, they would have a day or two to fit that part, and concluded that it would work. We could look at it and see it would be okay one or two a day, but not if you're building one in less than a minute's time. They listened when we told them it wouldn't work."
Belvidere employees, working along side manufacturing engineers, helped assemble early prototypes of the Neon at the CTC pilot plant in 1992. They later assembled program and pilot cars on line at Belvidere.
Checkerboard square at the Neon factory
There's this place in Belvidere, Illinois, called "Checkerboard Square." It's not big and no one lives there because it has no houses or apartments. But it was a significant place in the pre-production development of an efficient home to the 1995 Dodge and Plymouth Neon.
As the name implies, "Checkerboard Square" represents a series of squares carefully laid out in a specific pattern within Chrysler Corporation's Belvidere Assembly Plant. The 1 2x1 2-inch squares -- in varying colors -- were designed as a sort of road map to simulate the position of the various work stations, tool accessibility and build sequence along the assembly line to study operator ergonomics. It focused on trim, door glass hardware and chassis operations.
"Checkerboard Square" was set up in the pilot-build stage, before all machines and equipment were in place. The primary purpose was to improve plant ergonomics, influence operator efficiency and also reduce overall plant investment. "This way the tools and materials could be positioned at the optimal distances from the assembly line," explained Frank Ewasyshyn. "Each work station was simulated -- even stock and parts were then put in place."
A floor-level conveyor and on overhead conveyor moved the vehicles through the various stations so operators could see exactly how far their work stations were from the line.
"When it came time to reproduce that in the plant (once the machinery was in place), all they had to do was count squares,' said Ewosyshyn. "They didn't have to measure anything. That's why it's called Checkerboard Square."'
The system was being used even while workers on the active line still were assembling the now phased-out Dodge Dynasty and Chrysler New Yorker and Imperial models.
"We'd just take people off the line, take them to Checkerboard Square' and have them perform their operations as if they were building the Neon," said John Felice, Belvidere plant manager.
The first of its kind in a Chrysler assembly plant, the process also contributed to a more efficient positioning of height-related work stations along the assembly line. It come out of a study of the various levels of work stations and involved sequencing those with similar height requirements relative to the job being performed.
"Traditionally, vehicle height has not been a consideration in the build sequence," said Ewasyshyn. "But we found that when you get involved very early in the build, you can influence the sequence by the way the car goes together. So, if you rearrange your work patterns to keep all the common work heights together, you achieve two things. You reduce investment because you're not changing conveyor heights repeatedly as the car moves down the line and, secondly, it improves the operator's ergonomics."
In revamping the Belvidere plant, manufacturing also took into account that future model variations of Neon - - beyond a two-door version scheduled for introduction, September 1994 -- might be built there. This meant allocating floor space and positioning work stations in such a way that the plant could quickly accommodate building a future model with a minimum of interruption in the plant's operations.
"The space allowed is called white space," he said. "A lot of manufacturers ... when they do white space in their plants ...leave a single block of open area. In this case, the tooling is positioned in such a way that the stations are already there. So it's not that you have to reproduce all the transfers (conveyor lines). All you have to reproduce are the details."
"You would be able to shuttle the new tooling in, set it up and be ready to run the new models and the existing models simultaneously," he said. "There would be no plant down-time for the changeover."
Quality and the Plymouth - Dodge Neon Launch
"The Neon platform team studied the work of other Chrysler platform teams that had successfully launched the Dodge Intrepid, Chrysler Concorde and Eagle Vision; the Dodge Ram; and the Jeep Grand Cherokee," explained Ronald R. Boltz, Vice President-Product Strategy and Regulatory Affairs and General Manager of Small Car Platform Operations. "They improved on those projects by enlisting customers earlier than ever before, suppliers earlier than ever before, and UAW employees earlier than ever before."
Employees at Chrysler Corporation's Belvidere (III.) Assembly Plant didn't wait for the line to start up to play their part. Traditionally, engineers handed off a new car project to the assembly plant about seven months prior to the start of volume production. Belvidere's workers, however, accepted the challenge to make the Neon the best small car possible by stepping up to begin working on the Neon more than three years before to Job One, several months before program approval.
At various stages of Neon development, bus-loads of Belvidere workers - some 1,500 employees, or half the plant's workforce - traveled to the Chrysler Technology Center in Auburn Hills, Michigan, spending weeks and months learning how best to assemble Neon. As an extension of the platform team approach, and aided by a unique local agreement with the United Auto Workers union, large numbers of employees were able to utilize CTC for hands-on training at the facility's pilot plant.
"They helped us build the first prototypes at CTC," said Boltz, applauding the efforts of the Belvidere workers. "The suggestions from the Belvidere team were invaluable. We made more than 4,000 changes in both the car and the production process as a direct result of their input."
Belvidere employees didn't concern themselves only with the manufacturing process, however. To help ensure the quality of the vehicle, they test drove a fleet of fifty Neons for over a million miles. This effort was critical in identifying and solving noise and vibration concerns as well as the general durability and reliability of the Neon.
Chrysler's suppliers also played key roles in the successful launch of Neon.
"Suppliers were full members of the Neon team," added Boltz. "Many were brought in before program approval to confer on pricing, tooling and other issues for the components they would supply. They worked side-by-side with us at CTC and we went to their facilities to better understand their capabilities."
All major systems and component suppliers were chosen as early as three years before the start of production, actually some six months before corporate program approval. A unique consensus agreement between individual suppliers and Neon product work team members was signed up front by both parties to define and ensure that all parameters would be met for investment, design assumptions, conformity, cost and weight of each component or system.
Supplier representatives became full-time working members of the Neon product development process, often having full responsibility for large sub-systems of the car.
"This kind of teamwork between the platform team, the UAW and our suppliers has allowed us to pull ahead production of the Neon twice!" concluded Boltz.
“The initial quality level of the Neon has exceeded our expectations. In fact, the quality levels are so high and the launch of the four-door so smooth, that we will begin producing the two-door in May 1994, about eight weeks earlier than planned. The launch of the Neon is the best in Chrysler's history. Our customers can look forward to a vehicle that will exceed their expectations of how good a small car can really be.”
Other points of interest
Satellite Stamping Plant
- All presses, machinery and equipment come from North American-based suppliers.
- Automatic boom changers are installed on the tandem press line to change dies in less than three minutes. The system changes both dies and press automation booms automatically. (world first)
- An average of only 2.9 dies per part is used, the lowest number of dies per panel for any Chrysler car program. (Chrysler first)
- Dissimilar gauge parts run double and unattached. Both inner and outer deck lid panels run together on the Danley tandem line with two separate blanks. (U.S. industry first)
- Two multi-mode transfer presses are capable of running in either crossbar or tn-axis modes. This allows a greater variety of parts to be run and increases productivity by allowing multiple parts to be run simultaneously- - with separate blanks - - in the same transfer press. (world first)
- A "four Out" process is used in each transfer press. Two separate blanks are stamped in the die process to yield four parts for every press stroke. (Chrysler first)
Satellite fascia plant
- four Cincinnati-Milacron molding machines, each with 3,000 tons of clamping pressure. The process includes robotic parts removal and de-gating.
- Parts are delivered in sequence from the fascia Plant marshalling yard to the assembly station in the main Belvidere plant via a monorail conveyor.
- Advance manufacturing and Belvidere Assembly Plant employees became actively involved in the Neon development program at 186 weeks -- nearly 3.5 years -- before volume production. (Chrysler first)
- Production tooling suppliers were responsible for both prototype and pre- production tooling programs. (Chrysler first)
- Assembly line ergonomics evaluations and improvements were implemented 95 weeks before volume production which led to conveyor modifications, new tooling applications and parts process changes, each designed to enhance assembly operator effectiveness. Extensive applications of ergonomic employee-assist devices resulted.
- A computerized machinery/equipment design and development tracking system documented and tracked tooling and facility costs from concept to production. (U.S. industry first)
- Pre-production vehicles assembled to volume production process standards were built by Belvidere personnel on-site at the Chrysler Technology Center pilot plant in Auburn Hills
- four-phase, simultaneous engineering -- from concept to production tooling -- was conducted with weld system suppliers. (U.S. industry first)
- Extensive product, process and equipment failure mode and effect analysis was conducted. (Chrysler first)
- Process capability tryouts for weld, cycle time and dimensional tooling were conducted in supplier facilities prior to shipment to Belvidere. (Chrysler first)
- Weld systems were designed to accommodate rolling model changeover flexibility, minimizing or eliminating plant down-time. (Chrysler first)
- Robotic direct push-pull welding for floor pan tunnel welds eliminates large C-shaped weld guns. (Chrysler first)
- Electric servo-controlled hemmers were developed for precise control of gate force and timing. The hemmers were pulled ahead and used in the pre-production vehicle build. (Both U.S. industry firsts)
- A unique robotic transfer aperture system was developed and eliminates complex shuttles or transfer mechanisms. (U.S. industry first)
- A new proportional valve-weld technology was implemented, providing 99 weld pressures versus 4 in previous processes. (Chrysler first)
- Automatic tip-dressers for pedestal welders were developed. (U.S. industry first)
- A single contractor (Albenici) was responsible for the total equipment installation and conveyor system renovation and re-routing at the Belvidere Assembly Plant. (Chrysler first)
- Two-part adhesive was adapted for all closure panels. (Chrysler first)
- Production tooling was installed for the C-i Pilot build at Belvidere.
- All tooling PLP (principal locating point) and GD&T (geometric dimension and tolerance) information was computerized in each part's CATIR product file instead of on secondary paper documents. (Chrysler first)
- A waterborne paint system is used to reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds and to improve the car's exterior appearance. (Chrysler first)
- Electrostatic application of the waterborne base coat improves the transfer efficiency. (Chrysler first)
- Powder anti-chip protection is provided for hood and sills. (U.S. industry first)
- Pilot cars were primed, sealed and painted at Belvidere, while "paint slave" tooling was proved out in the pilot stage.
Trim, Chassis, final
- Use of urethane adhesive and automated installation of roof-to-aperture joint moldings implemented at Belvidere. (U.S. industry first)
- Off-line setting of hardtop gloss without on-line reset was implemented. (The glass is set to a theoretical body position in the course of off-line door buildup instead of on-line customized fit to each vehicle). (Chrysler first)
- full on-line electronic emissions testing is conducted to meet California's Transitional Low Emission Vehicle standards. (Chrysler first)
- More than 135 torque-controlled or process-monitored assembly operations were programmed into the Belvidere systems for 100 percent vehicle tracking by vehicle identification number. More than 25 critical torque-control operations have direct interface with the assembly conveyor for automatic line shutoff. (U.S. industry first)
- A doors-off assembly process was developed to improve operator ergonomics and tooling access to both doors, as well as the vehicle interior and reducing an operator's walking distance for ports.
- New front alignment automation sets and secures front toe-in without manual intervention.
- Headlamp aim is set with optical cameras, which capture the lamp's "hot spot". This process automatically activates power tools for the adjusting screws.
- A new plant information system on the Ethernet Network includes FIS (Factory Information System), torque monitoring, operator performance feedback system, total productive maintenance, electronic ODS access, CATIA access and windows applications.
- Some 1,500 Belvidere employees were involved in all Chrysler Technology Center pre-production vehicle-build activities.
- A miniature pilot-build facility was created at Belvidere to simulate assembly-line conditions as closely as possible. This was implemented 40 weeks ahead of the volume production launch. Christened "Checkerboard Square." This facility provided important in-plant training and product/process evaluation techniques.
ALSO SEE: Using computers to design the Neon