North American vehicle-plant utilization hit a record level in the year’s first quarter and is expected to continue as a result of auto makers’ aggressive production plans.

Despite a potential disruption to the supply chain and lingering uncertainty over whether U.S. sales can maintain those early levels, WardsAuto is increasing its forecasted 2012 North American output and for the following two years as well.

This year’s first-quarter capacity utilization, including medium- and heavy-duty trucks, soared to 86.1% compared with 72.3% year-ago, the most output for the quarter since WardsAuto began tracking production utilization in 2005.

Second-quarter’s forecasted 82.1% and the third-quarter’s 75.7% are the highest utilization levels for the respective periods since before 2005. However, the fourth-quarter’s anticipated 73.5% is less than prior-year’s 74.1%.

The reason for the Q4 decline is because of several short- and long-term shutdowns for retooling for new products at General Motors, Ford and Chrysler facilities. Another reason is that auto makers significantly have been boosting capacity since the end of last year as long-term growth has taken hold.

Therefore, increased year-over-year production in fourth-quarter 2012 will not match the additional capacity, leading to a lower utilization rate.

Much of the added capacity is being accomplished by adding third shifts or crews, replacing the traditional 2-shift schedules.

Ford is leading that trend this year with three plants slated to switch to 3-crew schedules. The auto maker uses 3-crew systems to rotate workers over a 7-day workweek, rather than three shifts daily Monday through Friday. Some other manufacturers rotate over six days a week.

Ford this month will install third crews at its Chicago facility that assembles the Ford Explorer and Taurus and Lincoln MKS, and also at Michigan Assembly in Wayne, MI, which builds the Focus.

After starting with a traditional 2-shift schedule this month producing the redesigned ’13 Ford Escape, Ford’s Louisville, KY, plant will add a third crew in the year’s second half, likely in September or later.

The auto maker’s Dearborn Truck plant in Michigan, which builds Ford F-series pickups, already operates on a 3-crew schedule. However, the Hermosillo, Mexico, factory that produces the Ford Fusion and Lincoln MKZ continues to run on a 3-shift schedule.

The Kansas City, MO, 1 plant, which closes this month for one year to convert to assembling Ford Transit vans, has been building current-generation Escapes on a 3-crew system.

Ford’s available production – straight-time capacity less holiday and vacation days and long-term downtime such as for retooling – will increase in 2012 to 2.92 million vehicles from 2.89 million in 2011, even though the Kansa City’s 1 facility will be shuttered most of the year.

Ford, along with Toyota, was a beneficiary of the increase WardsAuto is making in its North American light-vehicle production forecast for 2012. The revised total for the year is 14.71 million light vehicles, 12.4% more units than in 2011.

Most of the increase results from auto makers assembling 3.947 million units in the first quarter, nearly 69,000 more than were anticipated.

Toyota’s increase was due to underestimating Q1 output and from small gains given to most of its vehicle lines for the rest of the year. Ford’s extra units largely were because of its upward revision of anticipated demand for the ’13 Escape.

A new industry risk occurred in late March when an explosion at a major supplier’s plant in Germany halted production of a critical nylon resin used in parts such as brake lines and fuel systems. Damage to the facility will significantly cut global capacity of the material until later this year.

So far, the resin shortages have not caused any North American manufacturers to trim production schedules. But if such a move becomes necessary, it likely will happen in the second quarter and could be made up later in the year.

Another influence on production utilization this year is whether the U.S. market can maintain the 14.5 million-unit seasonally adjusted annual rate of light-vehicle sales posted in the first quarter. Although WardsAuto expects that the market will sustain the SAAR, there are uncertainties that bear watching.

These include weak economic fundamentals in the U.S. and abroad, particularly in Europe; a potential rise in fuel prices that could cause vehicle sales volumes to suffer – although that risk is seen lessening – and the political uncertainty in the U.S, due to a presidential election this year.

Nevertheless, WardsAuto is adding nearly 102,000 units to its 2013 production forecast, most of this from Ford and Honda. The year’s output is pegged at 15.18 million vehicles, for a 3.2% gain compared with 2012.

A boost in output by Honda mostly is responsible for an increase in the 2014 industry production forecast of 56,000 units. That takes the year’s total to 16.10 million, marking a 6.1% bump from 2013.

Honda’s increase in production is due to the expectation of more import replacement output being shifted to North America. Freed-up capacity at its Alliston, ON, 2 plant in 2013 will allow the auto maker to build more CR-V cross/utility vehicles in North America.

The CUV currently is sourced for North America from three plants in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Some units still are imported from Japan as well.

hstoddard@wardsauto.com