Organized chaos is under way in and around Ford’s Dearborn Truck Plant as the automaker marks a manufacturing milestone.
Last Saturday morning the plant’s last steel-bodied Ford F-150 rolled off the line and workers were ripping up equipment behind it. Ford has eight weeks to remove all the equipment and tooling and replace it with new machinery to make the all-new 2015 F-150 with an aluminum body.
“We are doing things we have never done before,” said Bruce Hettle, head of North American manufacturing for Ford, who must oversee a critical launch with speed and precision. Because Ford sells at least 60,000 F-150s a month now, returning to full production as quickly as possible is crucial to maintaining Ford’s bottom line.
“It is an enormous undertaking,” said analyst Joe Phillippi of Auto Trends Consulting in Short Hills, N.J. “The auto world is going to be watching and the investment world will be watching.”
The upheaval has been carefully orchestrated. The plant is now closed until Sept. 22, which puts about 3,000 workers on temporary layoff.
Another 1,500 skilled trades workers and contractors from Ford and its suppliers are working around the clock to build a new body shop that takes a “quantum leap in manufacturing technology,” Hettle said. That’s because the processes for welding and handling aluminum and steel are quite different.
This week, more than 1,100 tractor-trailers with new robots, conveyor systems and other equipment from across the country are headed to Dearborn. They will carry equally huge pieces of machinery away.
Ford is investing $359 million in Dearborn and a comparable amount at its second pickup assembly plant in Kansas City, Mo. Hettle said the cost is not out of line for a major and complicated launch.
Ford’s aluminum truck will have better fuel economy because it is more than 700 pounds lighter than its predecessor. General Motors has signaled its intention to switch to aluminum for its next generation of pickups as well, but Chrysler is sticking with steel when it updates the Ram lineup in 2017.
Dearborn is the lead assembly plant and thus the guinea pig. Workers on three crews built F-150s flat out until the last one rolled off the line Saturday about 1:30 a.m. and Kansas City will continue to build the 2014 model through the end of the year, so dealers should not run out of the 2014 model any time soon. The new truck goes on sale later this year.
Dearborn Truck plans to resume production Sept. 21 when two crews of workers return. A third crew will be recalled Oct. 20 when the construction is to be fully completed. They will start with preproduction trucks. The plant is scheduled to be building production models at full line speed by the end of the year.
The Kansas City plant will shut down in early 2015 for its changeover, which should take less time because Ford already will have validated many of the processes in Dearborn, Hettle said.
The equipment deliveries started last Monday, and by Wednesday of this week, traffic will be thick on the highways and roads leading to the plant.
Ford has worked with the Michigan Department of Transportation to try to avoid gridlock on I-94 and other roads leading to the plant. They devised a plan that avoids closing any roads and tries to minimize the impact on traffic by carefully sequencing the semis’ schedules.
“It is very detailed and organized,” Hettle said. “We have a truck-by-truck, minute-by-minute, plan. I have never seen such a detailed plan in 28 years.”
For speed, the body shop will be rebuilt in sections. One area will be stripped and new equipment installed. Then workers will move onto the next. It will be a domino effect until the whole shop has been transformed.
“There will be a lot of new equipment never seen before in plants,” Hettle said.
Much of the equipment being removed is still in good shape. Robots can be redeployed and other equipment used in other plants. Some equipment has exceeded its life expectancy and will be scrapped after years of almost nonstop production.
The big changes to the paint shop and final trim line have already been installed. They will just need some last-minute items and tweaks specific to new technology.
Ford has built about 250 preproduction F-150s that the executive team is driving and evaluating.
Senior leadership has been heavily involved. CEO Mark Fields will be at the plant Monday to talk to workers and shoot a video that will be shown to Ford employees around the world. The F-150 is the start of a long-range commitment to aluminum-bodied vehicles as automakers work to meet stringent fuel economy regulations.
The changeover must be completed in four weeks and Hettle is confident it will be.
“There is nothing we see on the horizon to preclude us from launching on time,” he said. “We have to knock it out of the park.”