Special Coverage

The Flexible Industry

Ford no longer is playing catch-up with Japanese rivals when it comes to flexible manufacturing, a capability critical to competitiveness and profitability, according to top company executives.

“We’ve spent many years looking at it and defining what we need at Ford, and I believe our level of flexibility is comparable with anyone in our industry,” John Fleming, Ford executive vice president-global manufacturing and labor affairs, tells Ward’s.

The meaning of flexibility differs among auto makers – “I could write a thesis on flexibility definitions,” Fleming says – but for Ford, it is the ability to seamlessly shift production between plants and quickly adjust line rates.

For decades, domestic auto makers dedicated assembly plants to singular models, while companies such as Toyota could build multiple models in the same facility.

That gave foreign auto makers the ability to quickly respond to changing consumer tastes by switching models with little cost and effort.

Ford’s dependence on single-vehicle assembly plants eventually caught up with it when consumer demand lagged for key models, spurring the auto maker to conclude its methods no longer were viable, says Jim Tetreault, vice president-North American manufacturing.

“Look at (the) Taurus,” he tells Ward’s. “Years ago, we needed two plants. And then the market shifted and we weren’t running near capacity.”

Ford’s flexibility strategy revolves around reprogrammable body-shop tooling, standardized paint-shop equipment and a common final-assembly build sequence.

The auto maker in 2004 took a significant step forward when it invested $1.04 billion in its plant in Oakville, ON, Canada.

The investment enabled Oakville to build multiple vehicles from disparate platforms. Today, the site produces the Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX cross/utility vehicles using the auto maker’s CD3 platform, in addition to the D4-based Ford Flex and Lincoln MKT CUVs.

While other auto makers still have greater flexibility, the changes at Oakville afford a ready capability to adjust mix.

Similar improvements have been made at Ford’s assembly plant in Chicago, site of a $400 million renovation that saw construction of a new flexible body shop to handle production of the Ford Taurus and Lincoln MKS sedans and their Ford Explorer SUV platform-mate.

The plant could accommodate a second platform, “but it would require some equipment changeover,” Tetreault says, adding mix flexibility was the key goal.

“In Chicago, we have these enormous tool trays for body sides,” he says. “When we want to build more Tauruses and fewer Explorers, we have to adjust tool trays.”

Advancing technology and a strengthening balance sheet allowed Ford to bring its flexible manufacturing scheme to the next level with the retooling of its Michigan Assembly Plant, formerly Michigan Truck, home to large body-on-frame SUVs.

The 1.2-million-sq.-ft. (111,484-sq.-m) plant now boasts a new paint shop that employs Ford’s “3-wet” process that combines the primer and enamel booths, reducing the operation’s carbon footprint some 25% and shaving 15%-20% off the time it takes to paint a vehicle.

The new paint shop features 66 robots, each with seven axes of movement.

A new body shop, which Tetreault describes as the plant’s most technically advanced operation, has 500 robots capable of 4,000 welds per vehicle.

The modernization allowed Ford to upgrade its standardization. “We only have a couple of different types of weld guns in this body shop; we used to have over 100. So it’s very easy to change them out.”

To improve communications, a new system flashes information updates to the plant’s 3,200 employees via 163 monitors. Even work procedures were streamlined to ensure operations are carried out the same way every time, Tetreault says.

“It used to be very common that the day-shift operator had things set up in his work station one way and the night shift operator would come in and rearrange everything, including his work sequence,” he says. “We don’t do that anymore.”

Upgrading ergonomics also was a key goal because worker injuries “ultimately impact our quality,” Tetreault says.

Overexertion can lead to fatigue which increases error risk, so Ford used computers to create a virtual plant, complete with avatars to represent workers. “We standardized every operator’s job,” Tetreault says. “That enables us to track any particular quality issue.”

Perhaps the most significant enhancements at MAP were the body trays. Tiny robots with pincer-like claws hold side-body panels during the welding process and can accommodate vehicles ranging in size from the Fiesta B-car to the Expedition fullsize SUV.

Tetreault describes the robots as being the shape of a small pizza “with lobster-like clampers.”

Previously, the body shop used welding arms equipped with tool trays that could accommodate just one model at a time. Changing models required changing the tool trays, a system still in place at Chicago.

While MAP currently is Ford’s most flexible plant, it won’t hold that title for long.

Ford’s Louisville, KY, plant currently is undergoing renovations to build next-generation C-segment vehicles, including the new Ford Escape CUV. Louisville Assembly had been building the Explorer SUV.

Later this year, the plant will reopen with a body shop featuring reprogrammable tooling that will enable production of multiple models without downtime for tooling changeover.

With the new technology Louisville will be able to simultaneously build up to six different models, including B-, C- and C/D-segment vehicles, although Tetreault says that capability may never be used to its fullest.

“If you’re building six different vehicles in a plant, you have to have that many more parts in the plant and then (manage) the movement of parts,” he says. “You have to be extraordinarily efficient in commonality, which is difficult to do if you use different platforms.”

While flexibility is crucial to Ford’s manufacturing strategy, don’t expect all its plants in North America to be retooled, Tetreault says. Some, such as its truck plant in Dearborn, MI, home to the high-volume F-150 pickup, already have acceptable capacity utilization and don’t need a second model.

Additionally, the F-150 is a body-on-frame vehicle, and adding a unibody platform to the mix would prove difficult. “I don’t know how you could do cab/box pickup alongside a sedan or compact car,” he says.

Flexible plants are a must to remain competitive in mature markets such as the U.S., but in regions where manual labor is less costly, it makes more sense to forgo the expensive manufacturing technology, Fleming says.

It would not be prudent to build a plant such as MAP in Romania, “or even China,” he adds. “The overall layout and the concepts will be the same, but the level of automation will be different.”

bpope@wardsauto.com