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Friday, November 1, 2013

Happy 30th Birthday, Dodge Caravan!

30 years ago tomorrow, the Dodge Caravan was let loose on America and the world. While it has been mocked over the years for various reasons, mostly for being "uncool", it was revolutionary in the auto industry at the time (and oddly, somehow cooler than a station wagon) and became so popular in its day that Chrysler couldn't keep up with demand.

I only mention this because in the spring of 1985 I was hired by Lear Siegler, a Chrysler contractor, to build seats for this new modern marvel in their St Charles, MO facility. And for the three years I was there, boy howdy, did we build seats.

The plant ran 6 days a week, 8 hours a day with 2 shifts. It was broken up into the "front row" module where six teams built the front seats, "2nd row" module where four teams built the short, mid row seats, and a "third row" module where four teams built the longer, third row seat.

The initial rollout from Lear Siegler was slow and poor at best. Trying to keep up with a massive demand while building a new infrastructure caused supply chain delays, which was nothing compared to the quality issues with the product that did finally get delivered.

Another problem we initially faced was that the specific Lear Siegler plant that I worked at was non-union when it opened. If you've never dealt with a union, especially the UAW when it was still strong, then you've never seen how a union "operates". We would work hard and find our groove only to have half of a shipment return with "quality" issues. Those quality issues included, but weren't limited to, various scratches and scuffs, outright knife cuts in the shape of an X across the back of a seat and, my personal favorite, forklift holes through the front of the seat. For the record, the seats were attached to a metal pallet with plenty of built in forklift holes on every side. I'm not sure how a driver could miss those holes by that much, but hey, we were taking their jobs and they had a point to make. Needless to say, said point was made and very soon after opening, we were a union shop.

Early on, I was chosen to be part of the efficiency evaluation for building the 3rd row seat. A company was brought in and they set up cameras on select individuals in each department to videotape how we went about building these seats. They used these videos to evaluate our movements to determine not only what changes we should make in our motion, like what items we should pick up first, what order we should build the seats and what direction we should walk in general, but also determined exactly how many seats we should be able to build per hour and per day, taking in various factors such as climate, noise and fatigue.

On the day of the evaluation, my supervisor, who had been a builder just weeks prior and was promoted to management ("white shirts" is what we used to call them), came over to me and, with a clap on the back and with a chummy but fatherly voice, told me that it was "...important that I give them something good to evaluate" and "...that I should do my best to ignore the cameras and people and act like they weren't there filming and to make sure I work extra hard to make everyone look good to corporate" and "...how important this was to everyone's career at Lear, if you get my drift" (read: his career at Lear). I nodded in all the right places and continued to prepare my work station as I did every morning. Shortly after the white shirt walked away, my union rep came over and, with a clap on the back and with a chummy but fatherly voice told me to "...make sure you don't overdo it. We all gotta stick together here and if you give them too much, they'll expect it all the time. I know you'll do us proud". I nodded in all the right places and continued to prepare my workstation as I did every morning.

Now mind you, none of these evaluators had ever built a seat before nor had any of them actually worked in an auto assembly plant, but they determined that based on environment and other factors we should be able to easily build 12 seats per hour at minimum and we eventually settled on 110 seats a day, per module, per shift. To put that into perspective, that's 110 seats per day, times six days, times four modules, times two shifts, for a total of 5280 third row seats per week. Per WEEK! And this plant didn't shut down for more than 4 or 5 weeks in a year for model changes or holidays. We were building Caravans so fast we would work through the Christmas holidays.

We cranked out seats at a record pace. We were a "Just In Time" company, meaning the Lear Siegler builders filled a huge "bank" made of pallet shelving with all of the seats that were on the production schedule over at the Chrysler building in advance of Chrysler needing it. On the other side of this bank were drive through bays where the semi-trucks would pull in with soft side panels on their side, meaning the side of the trailer would pull back like a shower curtain, and forklifts would load the trucks from the side in the order of the upcoming build. The trucks would pull away and, in less than 30 minutes, would be unloaded over at the Chrysler plant and begin to get installed in the vans immediately. Any delays in this process would shut the line down at Chrysler at great expense to Lear Siegler. And yes, it happened occasionally.

Near the end of my third year at Lear Siegler I suffered from injuries to both of my hands brought on by the constant pounding of the material on the seats to get the seams to line up properly. I would have worked through it but, due to union issues we were having with Lear, it looked as though the company would close the plant to break the union, so it was a good time to get my hands repaired via surgery. As expected, the plant was closed just as I was recovered and we were laid off. I understand the plant re-opened, hiring back many of the same employees it had when it shuttered but I moved on to my next stage in life in the entertainment lighting industry.

I look back fondly on those days. My father had worked for a time in the industrial machine as a UAW employee building carburetors in the 1970's when manufacturing was waning. That machine ebbs and flows as it has throughout automotive history. And when it ebbs, times are tough for the everyone involved in the supply chain.

But during the heyday of the Dodge Caravan, the American machine was humming a sweet song. One that kept soccer moms moving 10 years before the term was even coined.