TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Henry Ford’s vision of mass manufacturing has been evolving to flexible manufacturing since 2001, when William Clay Ford Jr. became CEO of Ford Motor Co. and announced that goal for the company his great-grandfather founded.

Change has taken time, but when the Louisville Assembly Plant body shop in Kentucky is remade, “it will be able to make any car on any of our global platforms, B, C or C/D,” says James Tetreault, vice president-manufacturing.

The C/D platform vehicle will be an all-new Ford creation, not related to former partners Mazda Motor Corp. and Volvo Car Corp., which provide the platforms for Ford C/D vehicles today in North America and Europe.

Altogether, he says, Ford is developing 10 new vehicles for North America from the three global platforms in the coming years, starting with the Fiesta and Focus small cars this year.

The change to flexibility is taking time. True flexible manufacturing was not in place in the summer of 2008, when gasoline hit $4 a gallon and demand for small cars peaked.

Ford was struggling “to figure out how to make more Focuses in Wayne (assembly plant in suburban Detroit) and how to put in a third shift,” says Tetreault. Three months later, the global economy imploded, and gasoline prices dropped. Small-car demand dropped from its summer 2008 high.

The idea of flexible manufacturing hasn’t changed. Ford wants the ability to react quickly to changes in demand.

However, the tools have changed, including programmable CNC machines added in 2002 in the Lima, OH, engine plant. The Chicago assembly plant became semi-flexible in 2004, and Ford also is developing a programmable clamping system for body shops with a partner it is not ready to name.

“We have had programmable robot welding for 40 years and programmable pin locators for five years,” Tetreault says.

Now, Ford has the last piece of the puzzle with programmable clamping that will hold pieces to be welded in the right position in a 3-dimensional space, he says.

Having a common process allows the same line to build different vehicles on the same platform. But without a flexible body shop, real flexibility is limited.

At Ford, the biggest change is 80% of the tooling now can be programmed for different tasks, Tetreault says, to handle everything from B cars to C/D cars.

In the past, “we needed tooling for each body style, and it took a long time to change the mix. We had rotating tooling trays, pallets of tools for each model. It was flexible, but with limitations.”

At the Michigan Assembly Plant, Ford will have programmable tooling for body-side assembly, a first in the industry, he says. Michigan Assembly is building the next Focus for North America and next year will add a battery-electric vehicle, as well as hybrids and other variants later on.

When the Louisville Assembly Plant is done, Ford will develop its cars so flexible pin locators all will fit within the same 3-dimensional envelope, allowing adaptive clamps and welding arms ostensibly to build any of the vehicles using any of the platforms.

“It may not do all that, but it could,” Tetreault says.