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Detroit looks beyond paint and chrome to quality improvements

Chrysler's brand-new K-cars carried more than gleaming paint and bright chrome as they rolled down a red carpet here to enter the fiercely competitive automotive world.

Riding on the future of these small, fuel-efficient cars are a lot of industrial jobs and just possibly a lesson for the United States as a whole.

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"Quality is the watchward at this Newark, Del., assembly plant, one of two factories where Chrysler plans to build nearly 600,000 K-cars in the 1981 model year.

If Chrysler sells all those cars, the company may, under the leadership of chairman Lee A. Iococca, pull back from the shoals of approaching bankruptcy.

If the cars do not succeed, not even the federal government's $1.5 billion loan guarantee can keep Chrysler from going under, in the view of most experts.

Chrysler's workers have been running scared. They see their families' futures on the line. Officials of the company are in the same boat.

The result, at this plant and its sister factory in Detroit, is a commitment to qualify that -- according to both workers and managers -- simply was not there before.

"These cars," said Mr. Iococca, "are the highest-quality cars in their class" and will "rock the Japense." Not surprising, perhaps, from a man who has staked his reputation on reviving an ailing industrial giant.

What do the workers say? Along the line, a man who daubed with a red grease pencil at weld spots on car frames, responds, "More attention to qualify? Unquestionably. We've got more quality control inspectors than we've ever had before." He motioned to the red spots he had made. "Every one of those will be redone."

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Next came a bank of huge robots, whose great claws, in a shower of sparks, tirelessly clamped metal to metal in rows of welds.

Men used to make those welds. Where were they? A young worker shrugged, "Some are gone. But others have been upgraded to jobs with higher skills." In any event, he added, "We need the robots. They do a better job."

Not even the japanese, one is told employ more modern technology than exists at Newark, where robotic systems do 98 percent of all spot welds on K-car bodies , and where the capacity for car assembly has gone from 60 to 70 per hour.

That means higher productivity, which, coupled with better quality, is Chrysler's contribution to the "urgent need to rebuild this country's industrial base," according to Iacocca.

United Automobile Workers president Douglas A. Fraser says that the same attention to quality is evident in the General Motors X-cars and the "world car" being readied by Ford.

These front-wheel-drive beauties from the big three will compete head-on for customers. But taken together, they have another goal -- to cut the percentage of Japanese models sold in the United States, now one out of every four cars.

Mr. Fraser plays another role. He sits on the board of directors of Chrysler with Iacocca -- the first and so far only major trade union leader to become a director of a large US company.

Conflicts of interest? "Not yet," he said with a smile, "though the potential exists."

Was this beginning of a trend? Would other trade union leaders join board? "Yes," he replied. There had to be a change from the old adversary relationships between workers and management to one of cooperation.

He cited a committee at Chrysler, set up by the board at his urging, to consider the human impact of plant closings before they were shut down, and what might be done for workers, instead of after the gates clanged shut.

All this may be the larger meaning of what American taxpayers will get from their government's expensive effort to salvage Chrysler -- just possibly, a new commitment to quality products and more fruitful dealings between the board room and the floor.

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