The situation is simply this: Dodge needed a compact car. It has the Avenger, a midsize. The Charger, a full size. The Challenger, a muscle coupe. There had been the Caliber, a boxy hatch that (1) was probably ahead of its time in terms of its exterior design and (2) had a fairly class-lagging interior, which undoubtedly helped account for its less-than notable sales record.
Also factor into this the fact that the compact car segment is growing at a healthy pace, and not to be in it is to be comparatively shrinking. With Fiat now owning Chrysler, a company that is based on a continent where compacts have long been the rule, not the exception, not a category of cars that is given reduced OEM attention as has been the case in the U.S. When Richard Cox, director, Dodge Brand, cites the competitive set they’re targeting with the Dodge Dart, he cites the Chevy Cruze, which was largely engineered by Opel in Germany and the Ford Focus, developed in Europe. In addition to which he names the Volkswagen Jetta (“German engineering,” as the ad has it), and four models from Asian companies: the Honda Civic, the Toyota Corolla, the Mazda3, and the Hyundai Elantra.
So it simply made a whole lot of sense to go with what was established, and the 2013 Dart is based on the same platform that underpins the Alfa Romeo Giulietta.
However, Chrysler has its own cadre of talented designers and engineers so visually and dimensionally, the Dart and the Giulietta are cousins more than clones.
Inside the Factory
The Dart is being built at the Belvidere Assembly Plant in northern Illinois. The plant also builds the Jeep Compass and Patriot models; it had been the home to the Dodge Caliber, which the Dart replaces. While the Compass, Patriot and Caliber share a platform, that’s not the case for the Dart. This lead to a nearly $700-million investment in a new 638,000-ft2 body shop—including new tooling, machinery and material handling—to handle the Dart.
Mike Merlo, chief engineer for the Dart, who had spent years working at the plant, explains that the bodies-in-white for the Patriot and Compass are built in one shop, the Dart another, and then they come together for trim and final.
The new Dart body shop uses 967 robots. Historically, it has always been the case that robots are reprogrammable and redeployable. And that’s the case in spades at Belvidere, which is using 550 robots from the St. Louis North (closed in 2009; had been producing Ram trucks) and the St. Louis South (closed in 2008; had been making minivans) plants. In addition to which, material handling equipment were also redeployed from those plants, saving approximately $29-million.
There were several changes made at Belvidere, many predicated on Fiat practices. For example, there is the World Class Manufacturing methodology that came from Fiat, which is predicated on reducing waste, increasing productivity, improving quality and safety, and “restoring dignity” to the employees; this was initially implemented in June 2009. Fiat and Chrysler personnel jointly developed a standardized layout for several sealing and welding robots; it’s called “BRIC,” or Basic Robot Integrated Configuration. By combining elements such as the robot arm, associated equipment and controller as a unit, when a BRIC is shipped to Belvidere from a supplier it can be installed in as little as an hour. There is an increased use of robots mounted overhead. There are five “marketplaces” throughout the body shop. Each marketplace has parts relevant to specific areas of the line; operators select parts and load them on a pallet that is then transferred to the appropriate welding station. This marketplace is said to facilitate the adding of different body styles to the shop—as many as four. Another difference from many assembly lines is that the new body shop is laid out so that all of the material and processes are manned from one side of the line, which reduces the overall size of the line and reduces the number of operators needed to load it.
Additionally, there is a robotic-based framing station deployed in the new shop that would make the aforementioned four body styles possible. It is called the “Open Gate Framer.” Instead of hard tooling bringing the pieces of the body together for framing, there are 18 robots (10 of which are mounted overhead) that are used to weld the bodies. Given the flexibility of the robots, the ability to make four different architectures is assured. But in the meantime, it also means that there is a precision build of the Dart.
And they are seriously concerned with quality at Belvidere, as part of the investment—$12.5-million worth—went to installing a metrology center in the plant.
The factory is going to be somewhat challenged by the Dart because the car is being made in a multiplicity of ways. There are five trim levels. There are 12 exterior colors. There are six wheel options. Three engine options. Three transmission options. And a list of “unbundled options”—these can be ordered à la carte, not as part of a package. According to Cox, the number of permutation is in excess of 100,000 ways a Dart can be configured. He estimates that it will take a customer from 30 to 45 days to get precisely the car they want. (Certainly the plant is building cars that will be shipped to dealers, but there will be a variety of special builds, as well, which means that flexibility is paramount.)
Tailoring a Platform
As previously mentioned, the Dart is based on the same platform as the Alfa Romeo Giulietta. That architecture was launched in 2010 and it was rigorously designed for dynamic performance as well as safety. For example, speaking of the latter, in order to assure that they’d achieve the maximum Euro NCAP rating, more than 15,000 hours were spent on mathematical modeling, in addition to some 80 crash tests, as well as a variety of other tests. This led to the use of an array of high- and ultra-high-strength steels in the structure, accounting for 68% of the total materials use. And to enhance dynamic performance there is an aluminum cross member that is engineered to react to lateral loads. An interesting component is a high-pressure, die-cast aluminum front suspension cradle that is produced in the company’s Etobicoke Casting Plant in Ontario, and which is 14 lb. lighter than a conventional ferrous cradle.
When some people think “platform,” they think that there is essentially the same base wrapped in different sheet metal. But while there is similar geometry and suspension setup, the Dart and the Giulietta are markedly different from a dimensional standpoint: