Microchip shortage halts production, but not at Jeep's new Detroit plant

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Detroit — Stellantis NV is extending downtime at some of its plants, but its newest in Detroit is churning out the three-row Jeep Grand Cherokee L.

Mack Assembly Plant is the first new auto assembly plant in the city in 30 years. The brightly lit, 3 million-square-foot factory began production in March and is operating on three shifts five days a week with roughly 4,900 people, including 2,100 newly hired Detroiters.

Erica Livingston, production operator, works at the body chassis decking line at the Stellantis Mack Assembly Complex in Detroit  on Thursday, June 10, 2021.

"Some of them hadn't seen parts before. These guys worked with me so well," said Jack Fox Jr., a mechanical engineer in charge of the tools used to install the chassis and powertrain. "I've worked all over — St. Louis, Belvidere — this is a great workforce here."

Giving Detroiters the first shot at jobs at the new plant was a part of the transatlantic automaker's community benefits agreement to be able to build the $1.6 billion facility next to its North Jefferson Assembly Plant, home to the two-row Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango SUVs, on Detroit's east side.

As a result of the new hires, the workforce is younger than in most plants. The average employee age is 40 and the average experience is five years. The more time autoworkers spend with the company, the more pay they receive.

Benny Wilkinson, 37, is one of the Detroiters hired. He now works on the final stage of the line. He walked to the plant his first week there.

"It struck me a little bit that everything's built new," Wilkinson said. "There are a lot of familiar faces straight from inside the community. I feel a little more comfortable in this job that I can be in it for quite some time. It's not part-time or on-call, not really knowing constantly if you can provide. It's a big thing for me and my family."

Mack also will build the next-generation Grand Cherokee when it's shared later this year, including a plug-in hybrid model. But the larger L version represents white space with the potential for significant profit margins

That makes it a priority for Stellantis as it maneuvers through the unprecedented, pandemic-induced shortage of microchips used in vehicle electronics from automated driving functions to heated seats. Meanwhile, other plants are temporarily — and in one case indefinitely — laying off hundreds of workers.

The Jeep Cherokee crossover plant in Belvidere, Illinois, will have its second shift cut next month; it and the Chrysler minivan plant in Windsor, Ontario, and the Jeep Compass crossover plant in Toluca, Mexico, will be down through the rest of June, the company said Thursday. Belvidere was previously scheduled for a shutdown the week of June 28, and Windsor's vacation was slated for the week of June 21.

"Stellantis continues to work closely with our suppliers to mitigate the manufacturing impacts caused by the various supply chain issues facing our industry," spokeswoman Jodi Tinson said in an email.

Jefferson North last month had its crews reduced due to the supply-chain constraints, but Mack continues to run at full tilt.

A 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L body goes through the Near-line Laser Radar, as robots measure hundreds of preprogrammed surface and alignment points, at the Stellantis Mack Assembly Complex in Detroit on Thursday, June 10, 2021.

The plant is made from two buildings that previously produced engines. About 700 of those employees still work here. Working with the existing site, however, came with its challenges, said Eric Goedtel, senior manager of plant facilities engineering.

"We were really constrained by the size of the site trying to make sure we can fit everything here," he said.

The city of Detroit acquired 215 acres to allow the automaker to expand the property, mostly for parking, a move that has caused complaints and protests by some residents, especially along Beniteau Street, who want the company to do more to address neighborhod concerns.

Vehicles begin in the 650,000-square-foot body shop, the former Mack Engine II building that had been idled since 2012. The building houses 578 robots that do most of the work putting together the steel and aluminum structure of the vehicle, a two-hour process.

The vehicles then go to the paint shop, a new 800,000-square-foot, five-story building constructed where an employee parking lot used to be. This fully automated process takes 12 hours and uses 124 robots. Workers check for imperfections at the end. The facility can paint up to 11 colors at a time, and 40% of vehicles are two-tone, receiving a black top, said Michael Brieda, the plant manager.

Eddie Baldwin, production operator, prepares to install a door for a 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L at the Stellantis Mack Assembly Complex in Detroit on Thursday, June 10, 2021.

The final building is general assembly, the former Mack Engine I building that built Pentastar engines until December 2019. Production and equipment moved to the Dundee Engine Plant. Most line workers are in this 1 million-square-foot facility that has one line snaking back and forth.

Here, Goedtel said the company ran into some challenges. To move the carriers that hold the vehicle down the line from the end to the start again, the company had to bump up the roof in an area. The ceiling tresses also at some points were too low for clearance, and workers had raise them at 122 points.

"It was very labor-intensive," Goedtel said. "It took a lot of work to get that done."

For assembling the vehicles, the company found ways to use robots to assist with some of the more difficult tasks. A robot now lifts a box with the vehicle's wire harness into its body as it travels down the line.

"We saw this as an opportunity to alleviate ergonomic concerns when installing that wire harness," said Mason Trang, a timing specialist. "As vehicles are becoming more advanced, wire harnesses are getting a little bit larger and heavier. We implemented robots to not have to load that heavy wire harness into the vehicle."

Other additions focus on quality. A camera-and-laser gap-and-flush technology that measures gaps between panels — typically used in the body shop — now checks vehicles at the end of the line too.

A 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L is driven through the Buzz, Squeak and Rattle (BSR) Track, simulates real-world driving conditions,  at the general assembly building at Stellantis Mack Assembly Complex in Detroit  on Thursday, June 10, 2021.

The company also installed its second buzz, squeak and rattle test task. The 2,000-foot course drives every vehicle through potholes, speed bumps, cobblestones and other elements to test for soundproofing and loose fasteners. The Ram 1500 truck plant in Sterling Heights also has one. An electronic shaker augments that test for even more aggressive conditions. It's the first of its kind in North America, according to the company, as most use hydraulics.

"It's quiet, low energy, and low cost," said Ray Peterson, product vehicle engineering lead for the Grand Cherokee L.


Twitter: @BreanaCNoble