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Sterling Heights

New Chrysler paint facility takes shape at SHAP

July 29, 2013

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Sealing robots wiggle and dance during a July 16 media tour of a new and upcoming paint facility at the Chrysler Sterling Heights Assembly Plant.

When a gaggle of reporters snuck a peek at Chrysler Group’s upcoming paint shop on the grounds of the Sterling Heights Assembly Plant July 16, little did they know that they were about to view a theatrical rehearsal.

Just above the factory ground level, in a pair of rows, a troupe of one-armed sealing robots swayed and danced in a mechanical ballet. But without cars yet to work on, even the precise choreography was a bit awkward — like prima ballerinas without a pas de deux partner.

Still, Chrysler representatives had plenty to show and say about the building’s future. With the company rebounding from recession and bankruptcy, the upcoming opening of its estimated 898,000-square-foot paint facility is part of a broader $850 million investment into operations in Sterling Heights and Warren.

“From a long-term perspective, this is a great endeavor for the city of Sterling Heights,” said John Powell, senior manager of paint facilities, planning and launch.

According to a Chrysler representative, it has been more than 15 years since the company has built a paint shop. Company representatives said they started work on the new facility in 2011, and hope to begin production over there in the first quarter of 2014.

While the assembly plant’s campus currently has an existing paint shop, most of the estimated 300 workers are expected to move over to the new building once it is operating, according to a Chrysler spokeswoman.

The new facility, equipped with more than 100 robots, will then apply sealing, powder priming and topcoat painting to vehicles that will eventually hit the roads of metro Detroit and beyond.

Powell said the paint facility is about 85 percent complete and is chockfull of innovative and “green” technology that can paint a wide portfolio of vehicle models.

He explained that the undertaking is a noteworthy moment in the renaissance of not only the company, but the Sterling Heights Assembly Plant — the latter of which had once been targeted for possible closure in 2010.

“I always said it’s a plant with nine lives,” he said.

Besides the robots, the Chrysler tour offered numerous sights. On another floor, chambers of glass and metal were designed to spray cars with a special powder primer before they are ready for their actual paint jobs.

While competitors tend to use a liquid primer, Chrysler uses a powder composed of a non-hazardous material that is more resourceful, according to Bruce Donakowski, senior advance process specialist for powder. He said Chrysler has used powder since the 1990s.

“We’re able to utilize about 97 percent of the material that we spray,” he said, comparing it to the 70-75 percent of material that he said is successfully used in liquid primer applications.

On an upper level, the tour ended with an explanation of the friction drive conveyor system, which quietly moves vehicles along their painting journey. At an area where reporters visited, the conveyors twist and turn along elevated pathways, which jut above the floor like a miniature monorail modeled after spaghetti.

But the paint shop, when finished, won’t be noodling around. Chrysler officials said it will be capable of painting almost 1,000 cars per day.

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