Chrysler begins its Fiat education . . . in Poland

Now that it has emerged from bankruptcy with the help of the American taxpayer, Chrysler needs to make small cars efficiently to survive. Fiat will be a huge help with its contribution of small-engine technology, but it looks like Chrysler can learn efficient production techniques from Fiat’s factory in Tychy, Poland.

The mammoth Fiat plant here, which churned out nearly half a million cars last year, may hold some of the answers for Chrysler (as well as Ford Motor and General Motors), as it struggles to regain its footing after its bankruptcy and reduce its dependence on muscle-bound trucks and sport utility vehicles.

For those who remember Fiat before its ignominious retreat from the American market — the name was said to stand for “Fix It Again, Tony” — the Italian automaker may seem an unlikely role model. It left the United States in the early 1980s after widespread quality problems.

But Fiat itself has undergone a revolution under Sergio Marchionne, who became its chief executive in 2004, raising standards for quality and reliability at plants like Tychy and mastering the art of building smaller cars with high efficiency. Chrysler hopes he can do the same thing for it now that he has assumed control of the American company.

“We are lucky there is a crisis,” said the director of the Tychy plant, Zdzislaw Arlet, unable to resist a gibe at the bigger cars and trucks that have traditionally stolen the industry spotlight. “Everybody wants to build small cars now.”

At Tychy (pronounced TICK-ee), one secret is flexibility: The latest robotic technology is balanced by workers who can quickly shift models to match demand. That is one reason Tychy is operating around the clock, six days a week, while most other auto plants in Europe and the United States are running at a fraction of capacity, increasing costly nonproductive downtime.

Marchionne has proven that he’s a great car guy, and there’s reason to be optimistic about his ability to transform Chrysler. With this visit the process has begun.

  

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