ATLANTA -- Ford Motor Co.'s plant here often is ranked as one of the most efficient in the U.S. But despite spending $250 million for tooling and employee training, its productivity is dropping because of the complexity of the new 1996 Taurus/Sable models being produced here. The old vehicles required about 16 man hours per car to build, while the new ones will require about 17 man hours. That translates into roughly 200 additional employees, Ford officials say. Some 900 new employees overall were hired to replace retiring workers and to help build the new vehicles.

Despite the increased complexity, Ford Motor Co. executives and union officials promise a smooth, high quality launch of the 1996 models despite the fact it is "the most complex model introduction in Ford's North American history," says James D. Donaldson, vice president-Large Front-Wheel-Drive Vehicle Center.

The first saleable models rolled off the line here at Ford's Atlanta Assembly plant June 19 during an elaborate Job 1 ceremony. Atlanta's sister plant in Chicago will begin production July 17.

The main reason productivity is dropping is because the new models have more features and engineering content, company officials say. The body is 87% stiffer and requires 350 more welds, for instance.

After a 58-day ramp-up period starting June 19 it expects to be producing 67.5 jobs per hour.

For the first time the plant also will be building right-hand-drive versions of the Taurus. Later this year Ford will start shipping those models to various Asia-Pacific markets, including Japan.

The plant is using the "integrated build" method, allowing for both new '96 models and old '95 models to be assembled on the same line.

The $250 million investment, besides covering new tooling and facility changes, also includes many operational processes that will lead to increased plant efficiency and improvement in vehicle quality, says Atlanta Plant Manager Wheeler Stanley.

Among the new processes are a no-adjust car-build technique, improved paint shop prep work, more weather stripping and sealants -- and the additional body welds. The plant also has 182 new robots, for a total of 290.