DEARBORN, MI – Ford Motor Co.’s quality chief vows the upcoming ’11 Explorer will launch without a hitch, citing new procedures to ensure top-notch craftsmanship.

Job One isn’t until November, but Ford engineers and product planners have been working closely with key suppliers for many months to ensure quality is on par with the best in the industry, says Bennie Fowler, Ford group vice president-global quality and new model launches.

“We’ve made a lot of progress in quality over the last five-six years, and suppliers have been an integral part of the solution,” Fowler tells Ward’s at a recent Explorer event here.

Bringing suppliers onboard early in the vehicle-development process ensures they “understand where the parts are going to be shipped and how they’re going to be processed on the line.”

Supplier involvement in a program could begin as early as two years before Job One, he adds.

The ’11 Explorer will be built at Ford’s Chicago plant, where prototype production is under way. The auto maker has invested $400 million in the site, which includes a nearby stamping plant.

Of the total outlay, $220 million is earmarked for launch and engineering costs.

Ford has added a 1,200-worker second shift, doubling the plant’s hourly ranks. The workforce also has received supplemental training.

Assemblers worked hand-in-hand with product specialists before the first prototype rolled off the line, Fowler says. “It starts all the way back to the early virtual stages of our product-development process.”

The Explorer is based on Ford’s D-segment platform, which underpins the Ford Taurus, Lincoln MKS, Volvo S80 and S60 sedans, as well as the Volvo XC60 cross/utility vehicle and XC70 station wagon. This also should ensure quality, Fowler says.

“You know the origin of quality and the basis from which (the Explorer) is built,” he says. “You’ll see more of that from us in the future as we share our platforms, and we think that’s going to really help us with our quality in the future.”

Precision is another key focus of the Explorer program, says Peter Bejin, Ford’s craftsmanship supervisor. “It is the key differentiator in a competitive and crowded marketplace.”

To ensure top craftsmanship and elevate the new Explorer’s perceived quality, Ford says a team based in the U.S. and Europe made sure every part, seam, button and dial were perfectly matched.

“It’s like an orchestra, where many instruments make up the harmonious whole,” Bejin says. “The precise and pleasant sensory elements in a Ford vehicle work together to create a holistic balance.”

Body-panel gaps, long a problem with domestic vehicles, were measured to make sure they were no wider than 0.14 ins. (3.7 mm), or about the width of two stacked nickels.

To investigate noise reduction, often caused by air leaks, air was removed from a test vehicle’s cabin following the paint process but before trim parts were added.

All openings were sealed with Plexiglas while a vacuum-like machine both pumped and suctioned from the cabin. Engineers using a “stethoscope-type” listening device checked for air entering or escaping.

For areas difficult to access, a camera was used to check for gaps. Leaks were then sealed appropriately.

While rigorous and time-consuming, such measures ensure the new Explorer is ready to launch, Fowler says. “We expect to come out of the gate with no problems.”

The ’11 Explorer is scheduled to go on sale this winter, but no formal launch dates have been announced.

bpope@wardsauto.com