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 Assemblers salute Prowler No. 10,000
 Workers applaud milestone for car that is hand-built
 By Detroit News wire services


 DETROIT -- Surrounded by the workers who built it by hand, the 10,000th Chrysler Prowler slowly rolled off the line at the Conner Avenue assembly plant Tuesday, five years after the first one was produced.
The group of about 20 workers cheered and applauded as a colleague drove the bright orange car past them, honking the hot rod's horn and revving its engine.
Henry Pettway, the man co-workers nicknamed Mr. Prowler because he has worked at the plant since the first Prowler went into production in 1996, said the secret to the retro-looking rod's success is simple.
"Old style and new technology. The two of them work together real well," he said as he beamed at the milestone car.
"We really handle these cars with kid gloves," said co-worker Philip Rolack.
Unlike many other production vehicles, the Prowler isn't assembled on a continuously moving line. Each one is built by hand by a group of hand-picked workers who produce just 14 a day.
"You have to be interviewed to be accepted," James Hardy, financial secretary of United Auto Workers Local 212. "It's the best of the best."
The Prowler was introduced as a concept vehicle in 1993 at the Detroit auto show. It proved to be a crowd magnet that persuaded Chrysler to build a production version for the 1997 model year.
"The thought behind the car was we're just going to build a car that's in a unique position in the market that really played off on the emotional attractiveness and the passion some people have for cars," said Steve Bartoli, director of Chrysler brand marketing.
The company purposely built the Prowler in low volumes to maintain quality and the car's mystique. Production will continue because demand for the vehicle remains strong, even as the Plymouth brand that launched the car nears its end, Chrysler officials said.
"As long as the market remains strong, we don't see any reason to end production," Bartoli said.
The automaker discussed killing off the Prowler when the Plymouth brand ends this year. The car began as a Plymouth in 1997 and was switched to the Chrysler brand in January.
Prowler sales rose 11 percent in 2000 in the United States to 2,631, though they fell 31 percent to 941 this year through May with the brand change. Monthly sales have climbed back to the 200 to 300 the company needs, Bartoli said. The Prowler has inspired car clubs nationwide. Plymouth-Chrysler Prowler Club member Rick Gallaher, 56, of Minneapolis, said he just had to have one.
"It's everything I've ever wanted in a car," said Gallaher, who owns a black Prowler. "It's three cars in one: a sports car, a luxury car, a street car."
The two-seater is fairly pricey, starting at about $45,400.

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The Plymouth Prowler: Aluminum Intensity & Intensity of Purpose

This month, the Prowler hits the streets as a production automobile. It is a study not only in taking chances in design, but also in pushing the envelope in materials application.
By Gary S. Vasilash, Editor-In-Chief

Aluminum Intensity
When Chrysler unveiled the Plymouth Prowler in Detroit at the 1993 North American International Auto Show, it was a concept car. Concept cars tend to be stunning examples of designers' imaginations, of what could be, only if...At the 1997 North American International Auto Show the Prowler is, in effect, akin to the Neon and the Breeze. Like them, it is a production car. Of course, this is not your run-of-the-mill vehicle.

For one thing, beneath that purple paint there are more than 900 pounds of aluminum. Given that the whole thing tips the scales at 2,780 pounds, and given the fact that aluminum is light, that is, to say the very least, a lot of aluminum. The point is: This hot rod is not only out-of-the-box in terms of the design thinking that's behind it, it is also way out there in terms of driving forward alternative approaches to productionizing the material.

Consider this, for example. For years, commercial aircraft have been riveted. Cars, on the other hard, have been welded, typically with resistance welding. But what if spot welds were replaced with rivets? The Chrysler engineers—as the company's ad says—questioned everything. And they asked a question about rivets and welds. And although there is welding on the Prowler—a prime example is the frame, as will be noted below—the spot welds are replaced by rivets. Of course, rivets have typically taken longer to apply than spot welds, and since cycle time is key in automotive, there was a concern about the riveting time requirement. So it was a matter of pushing that technology forward. Rivets are placed on the Prowler in a one-second cycle. (One interesting aspect of using this mechanical joining method: sheets of different thicknesses can be put together.) But then there is the issue of stiffness. Which led to the need to utilize epoxy adhesives. So now there is a combination of technologies, with rivets used in combination with adhesives. The result is a structure with a stiffness that's improved by 40%.

"At Chrysler," says Dr. Saad M. Abouzahr, Prowler Materials Executive, Team Prowler, "we approach new technology with an open mind. If it is the best way, then we do it." As so with Prowler, they did just that.

As Abouzahr admits, there is a wealth of know-how existing relating to how to process steel for automotive production. There isn't a comparable knowledge base existent for aluminum. But as Chrysler, like all carmakers, faces the need to develop vehicles that are lighter and therefore which provide more miles per gallon, there is the need to start aggressively climbing the learning curve so that there are material alternatives.

Chrysler has worked with aluminum before. Abouzahr references, for example, the "Neon Lite" project that was conducted in 1994. "We learned quite a bit about processing," Abouzahr admits. They did weld bonding, riveting, and rivet bonding on that vehicle which was, as the name implies, an aluminized version of the existing steel-architecture Neon. By replacing steel panels with aluminum, the body weight was cut by 50%; overall, a 25% weight reduction was achieved for the Neon Lite. But the resultant vehicle, while incredibly stiff (Abouzahr notes that the combination of adhesives and rivets helps create an excellent assembly so far as stiffness—which contributes good noise, vibration and harshness [NVH] measuresis concerned) was also incredibly stiff vis-à-vis financial considerations.

The Prowler program is not about taking an existing design and then making it an alternative version. Rather, it is starting with the clean screen and developing a vehicle and the requisite process technology so that the Prowler is a production car, not a one-off, albeit a comparatively minimal production vehicle. This month the Prowler goes into production at the Chrysler Conner Avenue Assembly Plant in Detroit. The projected first-year volume: 3,000 vehicles. Conner, incidentally, happens to be where another innovative vehicle is built: the Dodge Viper.

"We've never built a vehicle like this," Abouzahr says, citing, for example, the frame. Ordinarily, he explains, car frames are steel that's been stamped or roll formed. In the case of the Prowler, the components are extrusions and castings produced with 6061 and 6063 aluminum alloys, T6 temper. The pieces are then joined with MIG welding. There is quite a bit of welding: 105 feet of MIG welding per frame. Abouzahr points out that arc welding is something that's usually avoided whenever possible when working with steel, due to warpage concerns. The assembled aluminum frame is measured post-welding; any deviations from nominal dimensions are corrected through machining. That's right: the entire frame is fixtured and milled.

With regard to the body tub, however, steel technology had a lot to do with what is being done. That is, although the tub components are, for the most part, 5454-0 aluminum alloy, Abouzahr explains that they are stamped components. Stamping steel is well understood. In the case of Prowler, steel dies are usedjust as they would be if the tub was fabricated with steel components. "In principle," Abouzahr admits, "it is the same stamping process."

Without a doubt, the Prowler is an aluminum-intensive vehicle. In addition to the previously mentioned components, there are aluminum A357-T6 control arms, rocker arms and knuckles. Aluminum alloy 6022-T6 is used for the hood, decklid, doors, and hood side panels. Various castings are made from A-356-T6. There is an aluminum seat frame. There is an aluminum-composite material used for the brake rotors.

But the idea behind the development of the vehicle wasn't to use aluminum everywhere, just in places that made sense. So, for example, the front hinge pillar reinforcement and the tapping plates are made with cold-rolled low-carbon steel. Sheet molding compound (SMC) is used for the front and rear quarter panels, the rear valance panel and the fenders. Acrylonitryle-butadiene-styrene (ABS) plastic is used for the grill. Reaction injection molding (RIM) urethane is used for the front fasica and front and rear bumper covers. The frame for the instrument panel is a magnesium casting (this single casting combines 20 stamped or molded pieces into a single part).

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The Supplier Story.
But the whole Prowler program is not just about materials. Prowler represents "how to make a car" in another sense, this related to those companies that are working with Chrysler to produce the car. In Chrysler parlance, this is known as the "Extended Enterprise."

All automotive companies use suppliers. The relationships that exist between the customers and the suppliers are what provide the distinguishing characteristics from OEM to OEM, and as a greater emphasis is put on (1) supply chain management and (2) core competencies, those relations are increasingly important.

The issue is fundamentally one of success. The question is how the people involved work with one another. Historically, the relationship was characterized in the U.S. auto industry more by conflict than cooperation. The OEMs were the customers, and the customer, as the saying has had it for too many years, is always right. This often manifests itself as: "This is what we want. This is how you make it. And this is the price you are going to sell it for." What was more than implied was that if the supplier didn't cross the proverbial "t"s and dot the "i"s, the customer would go elsewhere for the product. After all, there was undoubtedly more than one supplier providing the very same product to the very same OEM—just in case.

When the Japanese auto manufacturers started providing vehicles that had exemplary quality and comparatively lower costs vis-à-vis the then-prevailing U.S. products, how they were able to accomplish that feat became a focus of study. One of the discoveries was that the OEM-supplier relationship in Japan tended to be one characterized by the striving for mutual benefit. This was not the effect of some Eastern altruism. Rather, the Japanese OEMs often had a stake—a financial one—in the supplier companies. The term is keiretsu. It is not hard to figure out how—and why—this works. The suppliers are part of the OEM organization. So their ideas about how things can be done have credibility. Contrast this with an underlying suspicion that whatever a supplier might suggest is probably predicted on self-interest, not mutual gain. In the Japanese arrangement, there is a basis of shared gain because even though the relationships might be arms-length (i.e., independent operations), there is a recognition that the fingers at the ends of the arms are important to how well those arms will function.

Chrysler is a company that aims to do more with less. Approximately 70% of the components in its vehicles come from outside suppliers. One alternative it had with regard to creating better relationships with its suppliers would be for Chrysler—a la the Japanese—to buy into its suppliers. But Chrysler can be characterized by a brilliant frugality. Thomas T. Stallkamp, executive vice president-Procurement & Supply (and general manager-Minivan Operations), and his colleagues decided that what they would do is develop, in Stallkamp's phrase, "equity in spirit," rather than equity in cash.

An underlying assumption is that the supplier companies are good at what they do, therefore it is in Chrysler's best interest to let them do it as long as it is in the best interest of the company. Further, if the suppliers recognize that they can gain through working with Chrysler, then they are more likely to give their all to the initiative. To help assure that this occurs in practice, Chrysler established the SCORE program—Supplier Cost Reduction Effort. An objective is to encourage the suppliers to find better ways and means to develop and manufacture products so that cost savings realized would be of mutual benefit.

Prowler is an excellent example of this approach in action, particularly as it pertains to the suppliers of aluminum. Although there are multiple suppliers of the material—ALCOA, Alumax, and Duralcan—this is not the classic case of pitting one supplier against the other. Rather, each of the companies has a particular expertise. So ALCOA provides frame, bumper and body material. Alumax provides suspension components. And Duralcan provides aluminum rotor material. The customer wins in the end.

Gale on the Prowler
Thomas C. Gale, until December 5, 1996, was Chrysler's vice president-Product Design and International Operations. Thus, the Prowler design activities occurred under his watch. We talked with him on December 4th about the Prowler. On the 5th he was named executive vice president-Product Development. He still leads design, but has added engineering and product strategy to his concerns. (International Operations were assigned to Francois J. Castaing, who is also the general manager-Powertrain Operations.)

"First and foremost," Gale said, "Prowler is an attempt to create an image for the Plymouth brand in a way not unlike what Viper did for Dodge." That the two vehicles are made in the same plant is probably not a coincidence.

Not only is Prowler something out there for people to see—Gale noted, "the product-as-billboard is valid in this case" and he said that people who have a Prowler ought to plan to spend plenty of time talking about it every time they park it—but it also provides a boost for Chrysler employees: "It is a strong inspiration inside the company." Gale said that there are concerted efforts by senior executives within the organization to help change the culture so that people will feel proud of what they are doing. "We want everyone to feel a certain amount of ownership—which is critical to success," he maintained.

"We must have a passion for what we do," Gale stated. Does Prowler help foster a sense of passion throughout the organization, whether the person is a designer or a machinist? "Absolutely," he firmly replied.

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Chrysler's Prowler: more than a material showcase, it's a real product - car uses light-weight, innovative materials and off-the-shelf parts
Ward's Auto World,  March, 1996  by Drew Winter

Anyone wondering why Chrysler Corp. has some of the world's lowest product-development costs should visit their local Plymouth showroom early next year. Sitting there, briefly, in a few lucky dealerships, will be one of the more technologically impressive production vehicles to come along in some time.

Even if you hate its retro-style looks, pull your nose up at its mundane 3.5L engine, and sneer at Chrysler's low-cost "let's use only off-the-shelf components from our parts bin" development strategy. No matter what, the Plymouth Prowler is a heck of a showcase for lightweight materials technology, including:

* A lightweight aluminum body structure with full-perimeter frame made of aluminum castings and extrusions and featuring innovative self-piercing rivet and adhesive bonding techniques for critical joints.
* Body panels made of a brand-new 6022 aluminum alloy that breaks new ground in strength and formability.
* Other body panels made of a new SMC (sheet molding composite) that is lighter and more flexible than conventional SMC material.
* Aluminum suspension components made with a new semi-solid forging process that produces engineering properties formerly unheard of for such parts.
* A giant magnesium instrument panel support structure that not only saves weight but consolidates parts and cuts assembly costs.
* Aluminum composite brake rotors that are half the weight of conventional cast iron.
Granted, most automakers are working on experimental lightweight vehicle development programs, but the Prowler -- thanks to heavy technological commitments from suppliers -- is a materials showcase with a difference: It actually will be sold in the marketplace, and quite possibly at a profit.

Coming to Plymouth showrooms in the first quarter of 1997, it has a 5,000-unit plus annual production volume and a semi-affordable sticker of about $35,000. Total program cost: about $75 million. In the world of automotive new-product development, that's postage stamp money. Not bad for a company that less than two years ago was criticized for being too lean and lacking adequate research and development capabilities.

That's not to say other automakers don't have interesting materials projects under way. The Big Three all are contributing significant resources to the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV), a joint research project between the U.S. federal government and their USCAR technology consortium. It's aimed at bringing a Taurus-size family car to market early in the next century that gets triple the fuel economy of today.

What's more, Ford Motor Co. has its aluminum intensive vehicle (AIV) program, a $25 million fleet of 20 aluminum-bodied Sables, plus aluminum-bodied Synthesis and Synergy concept cars. But you can't buy them. General Motors Corp. has its new EV1 electric car, a lightweight technological tour-de-force with an aluminum body structure that goes on sale this year. You can buy one of those for $30,000 pr so, but GM says it will never make a dime of profit on the car.

There also are light-weight, aluminum-intensive products available from Japanese and European automakers, such as the almost-extinct Acura NSX, the Audi AG A8 and the Lotus Elise -- but they are very low volume, very expensive -- or both.

Of course, aluminum-bodied Rover sport/utility vehicles are made in substantial numbers, but they aren't the least bit lightweight. Neither is the aluminum-bodied Hummer. That pretty much leaves the Prowler crouching alone in the realm of real-world aluminum-intensive production vehicles.

Among the most interesting elements of its lightweight strategy is that much of its materials technology has been directly transferred from Chrysler's Neon Lite program, unveiled 18 months ago. The program focused on using advanced -- but semi-practical -- alternative materials to chop the Neon's weight by 600 lbs. (272 kg) and improve fuel economy by about 5 mpg. High-priced exotic materials that clearly couldn't be put into production cost effectively -- such as carbon fiber composites -- were ignored.

That translated into using magnesium, glass-reinforced composites, and lots of aluminum. Francois J. Castaing, Chrysler's vice president of vehicle engineering, said then that the automaker would never introduce an all-aluminum Neon because it would be too expensive, and consumers wouldn't be interested in paying 20% to 25% simply for lighter weight.  However, he did say what was learned would be transferred to "future vehicle programs." He practically mouthed the word "Prowler."

In fact, some engineers at a press event unveiling the Neon Lite found themselves yanking business cards out of journalists' hands because they accidentally gave them new ones featuring Prowler titles -- and a picture of the car.  Saad M. Abouzahr was one such engineer. He supervised materials development on the Neon Lite, and then moved directly from that position to become materials executive on the Prowler program. He says the new car's innovative magnesium instrument panel support structure, aluminum bonding technology and aluminum composite brakes all came directly from Neon Lite research.

However, taking these new technologies and actually putting them into production takes the challenge to a new level. For instance, it was one thing to determine that self-piercing rivets combined with heat-cured adhesives provide the strongest, most cost-effective approach for bonding critical joints in aluminum body structures. It was quite another to actually devise a production system to do such joints, even for Prowler's relatively low volume.  But just as the Neon Lite provided a technological foundation for the Prowler, what is being learned now in Prowler production could lead to innovations on much higher-volume, mainstream vehicles in the future, Mr. Abouzahr says.

Some of Prowler's most significant materials innovations:

* Aluminum supplier Alcoa developed a new high-strength 6022 aluminum alloy for Prowler body panels that hits new levels in strength and formability, Mr. Abouzahr says. A heat-treatable alloy, the aluminum sheet is initially soft and formable, but after it runs through the high heat of the paint bake ovens used to cure automotive paint jobs, it becomes very strong and stiff, like a bake-hardenable steel. This material surpasses other special aluminum body panel alloys such as 6111, which offers good strength, but is not as formable, Mr. Abouzahr says.

* Key aluminum suspension components such as control arms are created using a new semi-solid forging process that makes them stronger, tougher and closer to the desired net shape. In a process similar to plastic injection molding, small billets of aluminum are heated until they are soft as butter and then put into a die. The process changes the texture and microstructure of the aluminum. "We're getting properties you've never heard of getting," Mr. Abouzahr says.

* The Prowler team also broke new ground in the way aluminum is supplied. The light metal has two key drawbacks for automakers, it costs three to four times as much as steel, and its price historically is very volatile because it is traded on world markets as a commodity "like pork bellies," critics often say. The Prowler team addressed the latter issue by negotiating a long-term pricing arrangement with aluminum suppliers to protect against major price fluctuations.

1996 PRIMEDIA Business Magazines & Media Inc.
2004 Gale Group

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