Numbers, we are told, don’t always tell the whole story. For instance, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA)’s assembly plant in Windsor, Ontario was inaugurated way back in 1928. Over the years, however, a number of upgrades and improvements have been carried out to keep it a modern facility through and through.
In the years before World War II, the plant produced two- and four-door Plymouth sedans, Dodge hard-tops, DeSoto convertibles and Chrysler wagons and coupes. From 1966 to 1975 the facility also manufactured the very popular Plymouth Valiant. From 1981 on, Chrysler Cordobas and Dodge Chargers rolled off its assembly line, and between 2002 and 2007 production included the first generation of the Pacifica (then a crossover).
In the minds of most consumers, however, the Windsor plant remains associated mainly with the production of minivans. There was the legendary Caravan (affectionately dubbed the Auto-beaucoup in Quebec by the automaker!), assembled starting in 1983, then the Chrysler and Dodge minivans and their numerous variants, including those equipped with the Stow ‘n Go seat system beginning in 2004. Even the defunct Volkswagen Routan was produced there.
To permit the assembly of the new Chrysler Pacifica and Pacifica Hybrid at the plant, a significant overhaul and modernization of the facility was required. At the time, the company did not plan on continuing to produce the Dodge Grand Caravan, but the ongoing popularity of that model compelled it to revise its plans. Today, the Pacifica and the Grand Caravan are both assembled at the retooled Windsor plant. Incidentally, during our visit we received confirmation that the Dodge minivan will still be produced in 2018.
Modernity and excellence
Since being launched last year, the Chrysler Pacifica – in both its plug-in hybrid and 3.6L Pentastar-powered versions - has collected a steady stream of awards and commendations of all sorts. Most notably, it earned the title of North American Utility Vehicle of the Year as well as the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC)’s Canadian Utility Vehicle of the Year award.
These highly-prized honours were a recognition of the Pacifica’s excellent design, road handling, interior versatility and overall conception. Several other awards spoke specifically to its quality of construction. The Windsor plant, not coincidentally, received the Silver designation for World Class Manufacturing (up from Bronze previously) for its high productivity, success in loss reduction and improvement in the area of construction quality.
Over the course of our visit, we were impressed by the number of state-of-the-art robots handling a wide range of tasks. The verification and control systems, for example, were omnipresent all along the assembly line. At several points prominent red buttons were in place to allow anyone who saw any kind of problem to stop production. A vast hall was reserved for measuring the minivans to verify that the quality of assemblage was kept at the highest level.
The Windsor plant spans 4.4 million sq ft of floor space, and employs 6,143 people – 5,908 hourly-wage earners and 235 salaried staff. Production is divided into three work shifts, and a total of 1,133 robots handle a wide range of tasks at all points on the assembly line.
A large percentage of the automated work takes place during assembly of the chassis, while the many stations featuring robots working in teams help ensure a constant level of construction solidity and quality. It isn’t until the sections of the line that involve interior finishes and verification of different components that human involvement is more prominent.
Lastly, it’s important to note that FCA is utterly dominant when it comes to sales of minivans in Canada, enjoying a market share of some 70%. To ensure that productions flows continually and is able to meet demand, over 636 trucks deliver components, products and supplies to the plant’s doors every single day.
There’s little doubt that FCA’s $2 billion investment in its venerable Windsor plant has been justified and then some.