AFTER sitting idle for three years, a Chrysler Corporation factory outside St. Louis has come back to life.
More than 3,000 autoworkers -- and close to 400 robots -- churn out the next generation of Chrysler minivans. Hour after hour, robots grab windshields and hoist them into place. Ergonomic arms methodically lift and install heavy car batteries.
The still-drab exterior of this sprawling plant hides a state-of-the-art production line and highlights an industry-wide trend: Rather than build new factories, the Big Three are refurbishing mothballed facilities to meet increased demand for their products.
''Chrysler operated at about 110 percent of capacity all last year,'' says Maryann Keller, an auto-industry analyst for Furman Selz Inc. ''And the company anticipates that business will increase this year and again next year. Closed factories represent an opportunity to increase capacity without spending heavily on new brick and mortar.''
Only Japanese and German automakers are building new factories in the US today, Ms. Keller says. ''In the case of the Japanese, it's because the exchange rate makes it so prohibitively unprofitable for them to ship out of Japan to the United States. So they have to build them here.''
For American automakers, retooling shuttered factories provides an opportunity to redesign manufacturing processes and install modern equipment, dramatically improving productivity and quality controls.
In 1994, Chrysler earned a record profit of $3.71 billion. It poured more than $500 million into the South Assembly Plant to launch the redesigned 1996 Chrysler, Dodge, and Plymouth minivans. And the company is renovating the adjacent North Assembly Plant, which produced the previous minivan models, to manufacture Dodge Ram pickup trucks beginning in August.
The new South plant will be capable of producing 1,150 vehicles a day with 3,700 employees working two shifts. The old plant produced 50 fewer minivans a day while running three shifts.
Although the product is more complex, it takes 18 direct labor hours to build the new minivans, compared with 21 hours for previous models in the old plant.
''We like to have at least a 20 percent improvement in processes and technology with new models,'' says Dennis Pawley, Chrysler's vice president for manufacturing. To achieve this, the automaker turned to its assembly-line workers to help redesign both the minivan and the manufacturing process.
Team leader Earl Berry is one of hundreds of employees who spent two years shuttling back and forth from St. Louis to company headquarters in Michigan. Mr. Berry sat down with engineers, designers, and managers and shared his ideas for fine-tuning original ideas. He now heads the panel alignment department in the body shop that he helped design.
''There's been a dramatic change in employee input,'' says Berry, a 30-year Chrysler employee. ''We're now looking at a totally self-directed work force.''
Inside the redesigned South plant, tape markings on the floor outline the exact placement for everything from trash cans to work stations. But tools and equipment are mounted on rollers rather than bolted to the floor, allowing for flexibility as new assembly ideas are developed.
Nearly 13 miles of conveyors zig-zag through the 2.5 million square feet of floor space. And the minivans travel down the line at an angle, rather than end to end, so workers don't have to twist in between the vehicles to install bumpers and parts.
In an effort to improve efficiency and cut down on operator errors, the new plant also has double the number of robotics as the previous plant, says plant manager Joe Mollahan.
''We're interested in increasing the quality of the work day,'' Pawley says. ''We're not at this to wipe out half the people working in this plant.''
Chrysler invested $30 million to install air conditioning. And the plant was designed for ''doors-off assembly.'' After moving through the paint line, the doors come off so workers in the Trim Shop have easy access to complete interior work. During final assembly, the doors go back on.
'HAVING doors-off assembly has also allowed us to move work stations closer to the line, cutting down on a few steps and saving time,'' Mollahan says. Eliminating wasted motion can yield vast improvements for both employees and the bottom line, Pawley says.
''The customer pays for tightening the bolt. The customer doesn't pay for walking over and picking up a part, transferring it here, and on and on,'' he says. ''When you think about it, two or three additional steps per process adds up fast. At the end of the day, that's a mile you've walked in a little circle.''
The switch to a new manufacturing process also has brought changes for storage and packaging of parts. ''You won't see a lot of cardboard boxes around here,'' Mollahan says. Most parts sit exposed and ready for use. Returnable containers are used for 95 percent of all parts, the plant manager says.
New powdered and water-based paints have replaced solvent-based paint that caused air emissions problems at the old plant.
''This is slated to be the lowest emission plant in North America,'' says John McLean, center manager for paint.
In a first for any Chrysler assembly plant, workers can pull a yellow cord running the length of the line and stop production if they spot a problem. ''A quality person comes and fixes the problem right there,'' says line worker Donna Lewis.
Each work station also includes a flip chart with a job description, diagrams of the job, and explanation of how it fits into the larger manufacturing process. ''We as hourly employees didn't get to see any of this before,'' says Mike Murray. ''It was only for the engineers and managers.''
Everything that goes on at the plant now includes hourly workers, says supervisor Tanya Pratnicki. ''We hold town meetings at the end of every shift where workers can voice concerns or raise questions,'' she says. ''There's a lot more communication than there used to be.''