Monday, July 23, 2007

Chrysler team gets happy

Handful of plant changes, including new seat, make jobs easier, injuries rarer, quality better

By Tim Higgins
Detroit Free Press

Aching backs and sore joints led a group of hourly workers at Chrysler's Sterling Heights Assembly Plant in Michigan to help design a special seat so they could work inside vehicles with less strain.

The result: A contraption called the ``Happy Seat.''

It's one of a handful of plant changes designed to make jobs easier, injuries rarer and quality better. More than that, it's the kind of innovation and cooperation that pays off with more worker satisfaction and better vehicles, workers say.

United Auto Workers members had made similar suggestions before -- as they routinely do at Toyota, Honda and General Motors Corp. plants -- but usually their concerns were brushed aside.

To ensure a quality launch for the Sebring sedan and convertible, Sterling Heights workers advised engineers and company officials -- even traveling to Germany on the company jet a couple of times -- to craft tools such as a device called the ``Spider Fixture,'' which has giant tentacles to reach across an open convertible body and measure the glass fit.

``Before they would bring something in here, and you would see two or three years for engineering changes. I am seeing engineering changes now in two weeks to 60 days. That's unheard of,'' said UAW committeewoman Sandra Dix. ``It has taken morale sky high.''

Dix, who began working at the plant more than 30 years ago, said the changes are profound, noting that the workers are coming up with ideas to do tasks that they long had to do by hand even if they had complained about needing a better way.

In recent years, automakers have been turning more and more of their attention to ergonomic issues. Michelle Hill, director of North American benchmarking for Harbour Consulting Inc., a top consulting agency that studies plant efficiency, said even more work is expected.

``When you have workers going into the vehicles who put in headliners... and all of that stuff, it is ergonomically very difficult and can cause a lot of scratches and dings to the vehicle. So companies continue to try to find new ways of doing things for ergonomics and quality,'' she said.

Hill said Chrysler has not been consistent in using these types of procedures in the past, but with updates to its assembly facilities, such as the recent retooling at Sterling Heights, changes are being made.

Before the launch of the new Chrysler Sebring last year, hourly workers noticed an element of the vehicle's design that was surely going to make their jobs more cumbersome.

The center console would require four screws to keep it secured and a line worker would have to climb into the vehicle 73 times an hour to do the job -- the perfect chore to ensure aching backs and sore joints.

Traditionally, it had been one of the worst types of job on the trim assembly line, workers said. They had to don knee and butt pads to climb into the unfinished vehicle interior to do work.

A worker pointed out the design issue to UAW member Ron Hicks, who brought it up with management. Soon they began working on an idea to create a chair that could glide a person into the vehicle to give them greater access with less gymnastics.

Company officials acknowledged that traditionally such voices might not have been listened to and say they've seen an improvement in morale and decrease in workplace injuries, though they declined to give statistics.

``We would have had trouble historically identifying people to be on those types of jobs. The neat part about it is that people don't see it as an issue because the Happy Seat doesn't provide any real stress to you anymore,'' said Sterling Heights Assembly Plant manager Robert Bowers, 64.

Aaron Ellington, 39, used the Happy Seat on a recent assembly line shift to slide into vehicles as they passed slowly on the assembly line.

In the past, such work was tough for Ellington, who is slightly taller than 6 feet and weighs 270 pounds. ``It was a pain in the back,'' he said.

The seat, he said, ``beats having to lean into the car.''

The chair is just one of the first examples to pop out of the plant's new team approach, which encourages workers to point out problems to their team for documentation on a white board, where the note remains until a solution is crafted.

As the automaker started planning for the official launch of the Sebring convertible last month, company engineers were looking for a new way to ensure the seams around the windows would not leak. This had been a problem in previous convertible lines.

They came up with a computerized device that mounts the vehicle like a convertible top does and measures the space with lasers to make sure everything lines up properly.

Hicks and his team quickly noticed that the guts of the machine hung down into the vehicle where the hourly worker had to sit.

Hicks made the case during a trip to Germany, one of two he took to work on the project. The machine needed to go on the outside, he said.

``I told them... think about it, everybody that gets into the car hits their head. He looked at me and said, `You're right,' '' Hicks said of a conversation he had in Germany. ``We got it right.''

At a time when there has been great uncertainty involving Chrysler's sale to the private equity group Cerberus Capital Management, workers are hopeful these helpful changes will last.

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