AUBURN HILLS, Mich., Jan. 5 /PRNewswire-FirstCall/ -- Lou Rhodes was at home with his 12-year-old son, Jon, tinkering with an Erector Set when he realized he could make Stow 'n Go a reality. It was August 1, 2002 when Chrysler Group's senior management was presented with low-cost, low tear-up options in order to get seats to fold onto, not into, the floor of the company's prized Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan minivans. "With competition heating up in the minivan market, fold-on-the-floor options were simply unacceptable to senior management," said Rhodes, Chrysler Group's Director of Design Engineering. "They wanted us to leapfrog the competition and they wanted us to leapfrog fast. Fold-on-the-floor seating options were quickly discarded and we walked out of the meeting with an assignment to explore an entirely new proposition; a second- and third-row fold-in-the-floor seating system." Led by Rhodes, a newly-created, cross-functional team of seven individuals was formed to bring second- and third-row fold-in-the-floor seating to market. But first, Rhodes' small team of three engineers had to design the new seating concept. From the start, Rhodes wanted something that was going to move the Chrysler Group ahead of the competition, without compromising the much-needed storage space desired by customers. He spent a lot of time with his team as they studied the flow and form of a variety of gadgets and instruments that were out of the ordinary realm of most automotive engineers. Sofa beds, drawer hardware, and hinges were analyzed at length while investigative trips to home supply stores were carried out regularly. "My team had the idea and the design but we needed to discover how to execute the idea from an engineering standpoint," said Rhodes. "Jon and I spent many nights working with the Erector Set trying to develop different mock seat models that communicated the execution." The two assembled and re-assembled model after model. Lou knew what he wanted the seat to do but was having difficulty explaining it to his team back at Chrysler Group. Lou took numerous models to his team in order to help spark design ideas for movement and structure. "The Erector Set model that we ultimately created conveyed the execution quickly and helped us visualize what we needed to do differently in order to achieve our objectives," said Rhodes. "One of the greatest challenges for an engineer is communicating how to execute an idea. In this case, the Erector Set model brought Stow 'n Go to life." Today, Rhodes proudly displays three stressed, worn pieces from the Erector set on his desk. "They serve as a daily reminder that good ideas can come from anywhere at anytime," said Rhodes. "And those worn pieces are a reminder of all the time and hard work it takes to bring a compelling idea to market." With the engineering concept in place, the next challenge was to bring Stow 'n Go to reality. Design Concept to Reality With 23 years of company experience under his belt, Bob Feldmaier was being re-assigned. Feldmaier was pulled from his day-to-day duties on August 2, 2002 to be a part of the newly-created, cross-functional team led by Rhodes. The team included representation from a variety of areas including design, procurement & supply, manufacturing, product planning, and program management. "Four weeks later, on August 29, 2002, we presented the feature Lou Rhodes' team had developed as well as the business case to senior management," said Feldmaier. "We walked out of the meeting with full program approval and an incredible sense of urgency. Our objective was to bring Stow 'n Go to market in 2004." It was a tall order. Entirely New Underbody Created Feldmaier was named the leader of a cross-functional team of 70. In order to get the new seat feature into 2005 Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan minivans, the team needed to dig into the floor pan and create an entirely new underbody, invent folding seats, and a load floor for the second- row seats. They also needed to design a new fuel tank, exhaust system, park brake cables, rear climate control lines, and modify the rear suspension. The team achieved its objectives while passing stringent quality gates and meeting key deadlines. In January of 2003, Chrysler Group kicked off prototype and production tooling simultaneously at the company's Windsor Assembly Plant (WAP). By building the prototypes on the assembly line, issues could be addressed and managed faster and testing could begin earlier. The process also gave WAP a head start on employee training. On May 5, 2003, the first prototype minivan model with Stow n' Go was built at WAP. Early this year, the new 2005 Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Grand Caravan minivans will begin arriving at dealerships. When all was said and done, the team met all quality gate requirements and accomplished their objective in just 18 months, less than half the time it typically takes to bring a new vehicle to market. "People in this company take great pride in our minivan leadership position," said Feldmaier. "And we're going to do whatever it takes to maintain and defend our leadership. Whether it's second- and third-row Stow 'n Go seating or the next great unknown minivan feature, we're full steam ahead."
SOURCE Chrysler Group