Toledo plant construction on track for new Wrangler
Next-gen Jeep model set to roll out in 4Q
Construction within Fiat Chrysler’s Toledo Assembly Complex is on schedule, with the debut for the next-generation Jeep Wrangler still on track for the year’s fourth quarter.
Officials from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which owns the plant and the Jeep brand, allowed a small group of media into the facility Thursday to see the progress of the work and give an outline of what all has happened there in the last eight weeks.
Since the last Jeep Cherokee rolled off the line on April 7, construction crews have gutted most of the plant floor to make way for the new conveyor systems, tooling, and robotics necessary for a new Wrangler.
“At one point you could see from one end of this building to the other with the amount of demo that was going on,” Plant Manger Chuck Padden said.
While a few areas will be relatively unchanged, for the most part the plant is starting from scratch. That’s necessary, officials say, because of the different way in which the new Wrangler will be built.
The Cherokee, which will soon relaunch in Belvidere, Ill., is a unibody vehicle. In simple terms, that means the body and frame are essentially one single unit upon which everything from the suspension and engine to doors and seats are mounted.
The new Wrangler will continue as a body-on-frame vehicle, which mates a body to a separate chassis which is built with the engine, transmission, suspension, and other key components.
“It may seem simple, but basically you're almost going from building a car to a truck,” Mr. Padden said. “The frame is built separately from the body so the entire process changes. The components are very different.”
Fiat Chrysler has said it will invest about $700 million in the project. Between the automaker’s own skilled trades employees and outside contractors, up to 2,500 people were working on the changeover at one point. Today, that’s closer to 2,000, Mr. Padden said.
Officials with the automaker would not address questions about the new Wrangler itself, which is expected to go on sale next year as a 2018 model.
However, union officials said last month that 200 prototype Wranglers already had been built in a special part of the plant. Those vehicles will be used for a variety of testing purposes, but not sold to the public.
None was within sight on Thursday.
The current generation of the Wrangler will remain in production until shortly after the new model launches. That side of the Toledo complex, which includes two on-site suppliers, has not been affected by the construction.
Officials with Fiat Chrysler said the work in the former Cherokee plant has included hauling away 920 truckloads of scrap material, plus about 4,800 tons of steel to be recycled.
For the new conveyor lines, crews dug out significant sections of the floor, installed the equipment and have poured 4,000 yards of new concrete.
“From the technology standpoint here, there’s nothing brand new, never been used before, but some of this is brand new to Toledo and some of it’s bigger, faster, better, than where the applications have been in the past,” Mr. Padden said.
One addition will be adaptive lighting in the final inspection part of the paint shop.
“There’s new technology there that will actually adjust the intensity of the inspection lighting depending on the color of the car going down the line,” Mr. Padden said.
Different parts of the plant are in different stages of construction. While concrete is still being poured in some areas, in other areas technicians are beginning to program the robots.
Fiat Chrysler laid off about 3,200 employees when Cherokee production ended, though the company has said all of those will be brought back in. The company also has said 700 new full-time jobs would be created, though no new details about that were offered on Thursday.
Eventually, Jeep will shut down the current Wrangler line and retool it for a new Jeep pickup. The company has said the Toledo Assembly Complex will share in an upcoming $1 billion investment that will support part of that work, though officials haven’t said exactly how much of it will come to Toledo.