LOUISVILLE, KY – Ford’s new ’13 Escape cross/utility vehicle has begun rolling off the assembly line here, with output expected to fully ramp up by year’s end.

To prepare the 3.1 million-sq.-ft. (288,000-sq.-m) facility for the next-generation CUV, the auto maker has invested $600 million to replace nearly all the aging equipment used to build the former body-on-frame Explorer SUV.

New flooring and lights also have been added to the plant, which was constructed in 1955 to manufacture the Edsel.

“We added a significant amount of technology, including a lot of vision systems to verify quality,” John Savona, plant manager, tells WardsAuto during a media tour of the plant.

Among the upgrades is a new paint shop that employs Ford’s 3-wet process that the auto maker says is faster, conserves energy and is more environmentally friendly than the facility it replaced.

The innovative system, now used in most Ford plants, eliminates the preparation stage, allowing the three layers of paint – primer, base and enamel – to be applied one after the other without manual intervention and while each layer still is wet.

Also new to the facility are palletes that automatically adjust their height for easier access to the vehicle as it comes down the line. The palettes reduce workplace injuries and help improve quality, Savona says.

“In the past, it didn’t matter what area of the car you were working on, you had to reach and bend over,” he says.

Even with the added technology, more workers will be needed at the plant, which presently operates on two 10-hour shifts, four days a week.

“We’ve been growing our workforce from 1,100 to 4,300 and tripling the salaried workforce to 182,” Savona says. A third crew to be added in the fourth quarter will employ 1,300 workers currently undergoing training. The plant then will operate seven days a week on two 10-hour shifts.

The need for more employees is driven by increased vehicle content, he adds. “The line is going to be running faster and more production is expected.”

Most of the new workers are being hired at the entry-level tier-2 wage stipulated in Ford’s labor contract with the United Auto Workers union.

“We will have another opportunity for fulltime workers to transfer here, but we expect (total) tier-2 hires to be around the 1,500 mark,” Savona says, adding that when the factory is fully staffed it will boast the largest workforce of any North American Ford plant.

Tier-2 workers will perform some of the work Ford has brought in-house from outside suppliers, including instrument-panel production and door assembly. “The entry-level wage makes the business case much better,” Savona says.

Ford does not disclose the plant’s annual installed capacity but says it could build up to 300,000 units a year should demand for the Escape warrant such output. “We’re pretty confident this product is going to hit the spot,” he says.

Initially, the Louisville facility’s entire volume will be dedicated to the Escape, but Savona says the plant is capable of building up to six derivative models based on the CUV’s global C-car platform.

“That makes us one of the most flexible assembly plants in the world,” he says. “We haven’t announced any other products now, but we could bring other products in here in the future.”

The plant will operate on a just-in-time schedule, sourcing 2,600 parts for the Escape from 500 suppliers, most located in the area.

The ’13 Escape is expected to begin arriving at dealerships in May. While the majority of units will be sold in North America, some will be exported.

“U.S. volume is about 80%, but we’re going to send 15% to Canada, 2.5% to Mexico and 2.5% to the Caribbean, Central America, Africa and the Middle East,” Savona says.

bpope@wardsauto.com