It all started with a single question: “How do we do this better?” From there, Stellantis, then Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), put the people and plans into place to change the quality of their products for the better.
Initial product quality has been an issue across the board for companies that were formerly under the FCA umbrella (Alfa Romeo, Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, Jeep, Maserati, and Ram) for years. Dodge made news last year when they tied with Kia for the top spot in the 2020 J.D. Power Initial Quality Study. It was the first time in 34 years that an American automaker had lead the pack.
That study details the problems encountered by owners of current model year vehicles during the first 90 days of ownership. “Owners of Jeep, and Stellantis brands in general, have historically reported more initial quality problems than the average,” said Dave Sargent, vice president of automotive quality, J.D. Power.
Stellantis’s Mack Plant was idled in 2012 and due for a makeover. As product plans were solidified, Jeep chose the next-generation Grand Cherokee to be the model that would christen the new facility, which lies adjacent to the company’s Jefferson Plant on Detroit’s north side, together forming the Detroit Assembly Complex.
The Mack Plant site has been an automotive industry manufacturing facility since 1916. Its rise and fall over the last century mirrors the story of Detroit itself. The current iteration is a combination of an overhauled assembly building that was built in the 1990s and new facilities that were constructed as part of a $1.6 billion investment announced in 2019. It is the first new assembly plant built in Detroit in 30 years.
Construction on the new facility began in the second quarter of 2019. It was swift, with completion occurring less than two years later. The three million square feet of floor space sit as part of the larger 266-acre site, which houses the company’s Jeep Grand Cherokee L and forthcoming Grand Cherokee Base and 4xe Body Shop, Paint Shop, and General Assembly facilities.
Typical vehicle development follows a series of stages from conceptualization to approval to manufacturing to launch. Jeep’s Grand Cherokee L team pulled in the manufacturing team early, a full six months before they typically would, in an effort to put vehicle quality in the spotlight.
Part of that process was having a hand in the design of the company’s new Mack Plant layout. Jeep wasn’t retrofitting a plant as an automaker typically would with the introduction of a generational redesign. They were starting from a metal and concrete shell, allowing them to fully customize the manufacturing process.
Automotive product planners, engineers, and designers typically work within a pyramid style of reporting with management at the top. Tom Seel, vehicle line executive for the Jeep Grand Cherokee L, explained that for the new generation SUV and the Mack Plant, Jeep flipped the formula on its head, putting the customer first.
Supporting that critical mission are the over 4,900 workers at Mack. Focusing on the customer means crafting an empowered workforce that personally felt responsible for the quality of the product that was on the line. Because the plant and most of its staff were new to the company, Jeep’s team has the opportunity to create culture, not just seek to modify it. They want employees to take ownership in the vehicles rolling off the line and have pride in them. “It was an opportunity to set a new precedent,” said Mario Holmes, model responsible, Jeep Grand Cherokee L, “This is their car.”
This triggered a fundamental change in the approach to the manufacturing process. The company pulled experienced workers from other plants and put them in charge. They hired a workforce that has been slowly completing the on-boarding and training process. First shift was started last summer and second and third shifts began work in March and April, respectively.
Mack Plant staff encourage their workers to not allow anything that isn’t perfect to pass. As a reminder of that commitment, signs hang at nearly every station on the plant floor reading “Build no defect. Accept no defect. Ship no defect.”
If a worker sees a defect, they’re responsible for pulling the andon handle, which halts the production line. The goal is to identify the problem, find out what can be done, and address it then and there rather than waiting for the vehicle to come off the line, go the dealer, be sold, and then be recalled. That formula looks to save time and money for customers, dealers, and Jeep.
Additionally, instead of waiting until the end of production for each vehicle to be tested, workers test them at three separate points, allowing any issues to be caught early on in the production process rather than at the end of the line or when the model reaches a dealership.
There are new tests on each Grand Cherokee L that aren’t undertaken on the current generation Grand Cherokee – Buzz, Squeak, and Rattle (BSR) and the Nine Position Water Test. BSR testing allows plant workers to take the vehicle through a series of 11 simulated obstacles (pot holes, manhole covers, rumble strips, cobblestones, speed bumps, and gravel among them) to see if vehicle components fail at any point.
The Nine Position Water Test simulates a variety of terrain including hills and inclines, and weather conditions. Each vehicle goes through these tests, and a series of others. Any that don’t pass all criteria are pulled for further inspection and not allowed to proceed to shipping until the issue has been resolved.
These tests are new to the plant as part of the company’s redo. BSR testing is only done at one other U.S.-based Stellantis plant – Sterling Heights Assembly, home of the Ram 1500. The water test is similarly unique, only being conducted elsewhere at the Toledo Assembly Complex where the Jeep Wrangler and Gladiator are built.
There is a sense of urgency about the quality of the whole operation. Mack Plant managers huddle at 6 a.m. each morning to discuss downtime and lost time, and try to solve problems rather than wait for a weekly or monthly meeting.
Mechanical engineers have been moved to the plant floor, working at the site where the vehicle they’re responsible for is produced, creating a more cohesive partnership from design to manufacturing where teams can work together while being hands-on with the product, meet with the employees who assemble it, and the interact with the supplies that are being delivered.
Data mining is also playing a critical part in the manufacturing quality control process. Jeep contracted with an outside vendor to create My Customer Voice, a data mining system that analyzes repair information sent by dealerships and pushes identifiable trend patterns to managers that are on the production line at Mack Plant. The effort aims to answer questions about installation problems, supplier part defects, and design flaws as soon as possible.
In 2020, J.D. Power reported that, for the first time in 15 years of survey tracking, Jeep performed better than average in initial quality tests, but that score was greatly impacted by the removal of problematic models from the company’s lineup. Sargent notes that over the next few years, Jeep will be “introducing multiple significant new products”, something that would be a challenge for any automaker and will be a “good test of the progress that the company has made.”