Plant of the Year / Automotive Assembly / Green Manufacturing Assembly / Lean Manufacturing Assembly

Ford Focuses on Flexibility

October 1, 2012
Trans

A century ago, Ford Motor Co.’s factory in Highland Park, MI, was the epicenter of the auto industry. People came from around the world to marvel at the four-story Crystal Palace, which featured an endless array of gravity slides, chutes and rollers. At the time, engineers were experimenting with a moving assembly line, which would soon transform the auto industry.

 

Today, another Ford plant that’s located just 17 miles away from the remnants of the Highland Park facility represents the future of auto manufacturing. The 4-million-square-foot Michigan Assembly Plant (MAP) in Wayne, MI, is Ford’s showcase for flexible, green, lean manufacturing.

Engineers transformed an old plant that once made large sport utility vehicles (SUVs) into a state-of-the-art factory that assembles fuel-efficient small cars. Ford invested $550 million to make the 60-year-old complex the first assembly plant in the world capable of building a full line-up of vehicles on the same line. Thanks to an integrated production strategy, MAP assemblers build three different types of electrified vehicles alongside traditional gas-powered cars.

New tools and equipment, coupled with world-class quality standards and a revised lean production philosophy, allow Ford to make small cars profitably while adjusting production volume and production mix based on market demand. Reprogrammable tooling in the body shop, standardized equipment in the paint shop and a common-build sequence in final assembly make MAP Ford’s most flexible plant.

“Our flexible manufacturing system has given this plant the opportunity to increase production by 30 percent, while handling a 300 percent increase in complexity,” claims Anthony Hoskins, Ford’s director of manufacturing and former MAP plant manager. “[This plant] epitomizes the best of what Ford stands for—fuel efficiency, quality and smart technology.”

The Michigan Assembly Plant, which is the recipient of the 2012 Assembly Plant of the Year award sponsored by ASSEMBLY Magazine, builds four versions of the Ford Focus compact sedan and two versions of the new Ford C-Max crossover. Ford MAP was chosen for the 9th annual award because of the way it produces multiple models—gas powered, electric, hybrid and plug-in hybrid—on the same assembly line in environmentally friendly ways.

Ambitious Project

The Michigan Assembly Plant is a consolidation of two Ford plants that were built in the 1950s: Michigan Truck and Wayne Stamping and Assembly. The former was built in 1957 to produce station wagons. The building was christened the Michigan Truck Plant in 1964 when it began assembling Ford F-100 pickups. The factory also produced Ford Broncos from 1966 to 1996. More recently, it assembled Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator SUVs from 1997 to 2008.

The Wayne Stamping and Assembly Plant opened in 1952 to replace an old factory in Detroit that built Lincoln and Mercury sedans. The new facility produced the Lincoln Continental and the Lincoln Zephyr. During the late 1950s, the plant also assembled the Edsel. The factory built the Ford Galaxie sedan in the 1960s and the Ford Maverick compact in the 1970s. From 1981 to 1999, the Ford Escort was assembled in the plant. And, up until MAP opened last year, Wayne Stamping and Assembly was the home of the Ford Focus.

Four years ago, Ford engineers embarked on an ambitious project to combine both plants into a state-of-the-art facility. Going from building SUVs to small cars was no easy task. It required an extensive physical transformation.

The first step in the transition process involved gutting the Michigan Truck Plant. Before the demolition project began in early 2010, production of Ford SUVs was moved to the company’s plant in Louisville, KY.

“We started by disassembling and moving almost everything from one end of the building to the other,” says David Torosian, facility manager. “This gave us an opportunity to make a fresh start and allowed us to optimize the new plant for maximum efficiency and productivity.

“We looked at what legacy equipment, tooling and conveyor systems we could save,” adds Torosian. “The building did not expand, but about 70 percent of the equipment is new.”

Ford engineers made an effort to reduce, reuse and recycle every step of the way. Existing tooling and equipment that met the new flexible manufacturing requirements was refurbished and reinstalled. The rest of the equipment was scrapped and recycled.

In fact, more than 10 million pounds of steel was recycled. “Even the temporary wooden partitions that were put up as the plant was revamped and remodeled were donated to the local Habitat for Humanity,” says Torosian.

The refurbishment process also involved improvements to the factory’s infrastructure. Four old cooling towers were removed from the roof, along with 49 rooftop exhaust units, 37 heaters and four HVAC units. Ceiling leaks were repaired and 810,000-square-feet of roof was replaced.

To make MAP as green as possible, a large array of solar panels was installed in a corner of the parking lot. “Renewable energy collected by the solar panels directly feeds the energy-efficient microgrid, helping power the plant,” says Torosian. “The projected energy cost savings is approximately $160,000 per year.”

The 2012 Assembly Plant of the Year also features 10 charging stations that recharge electric switcher trucks that transport parts around the sprawling facility, which includes a stamping plant, a body shop, a paint shop and a final assembly building. “That saves 86,000 gallons of gas a year,” Torosian points out.

Inside the 1.2 million-square-foot final assembly building, which contains a chassis line and a trim line—in addition to engine, suspension, door and instrument panel subassembly lines—ceilings were painted white to brighten the factory floor. All floors in the building were also cleaned and resealed.

Once all the infrastructure work was finished, engineers started to lay out the physical footprint of the new plant to achieve optimal flow. “Our footprint here, based on vehicle flow and the complexity of what we’re building, is relatively small,” says Daryl Sykes, MAP plant manager. “That’s due to material flow, parts sequencing, error proofing and flexible fixturing.”

Virtual manufacturing technology helped guide the transformation of MAP. Ford engineers used computer simulations to create a virtual build environment, which allowed them to evaluate tooling and assembly tasks before multifunctional workstations and equipment were installed on the plant floor.

The Michigan Assembly Plant ramped up in March 2011. “We ran the old Wayne Assembly Plant almost right up until the day that we launched this facility,” Sykes points out.

A key part of MAP’s transformation revolved around an extensive training program for its entire workforce. “We spent a tremendous amount of time on training,” says Sykes. “Our efforts were focused on process optimization and waste reduction.”

Specifically, training centered on the plant’s key operating principles—safety, quality and flexible manufacturing—with a  high priority placed on respect for people, product and processes. Group leaders from the Wayne Assembly Plant participated in an intense, three-week quality education program, which included test builds of the next-generation Focus and in-depth training on safety, ergonomics and workstation design.

As the salaried and hourly work-force arrived at MAP, operating patterns helped ease the transition. The first week, the normally two-shift operation was combined into one so that group leaders on both day and afternoon shifts could work collectively with their teams and ensure standardization of work practices. Shifts continued to overlap so line employees could work together and minimize variability on job performance.

Small Cars, Big Demand

After decades of assembling SUVs and pickup trucks, MAP has become ground zero for Ford’s small car initiative. The automaker is focusing on a new generation of small, fuel-efficient vehicles that appeal to younger car buyers.

As gas prices skyrocket, demand for small cars has been booming. According to a recent study conducted by J.D. Power and Associates, 27 percent of new-vehicle buyers purchased an automobile in a smaller-size segment than the one they replaced, while just 13 percent traded up for a larger vehicle.

In 2004, cars and crossovers represented only 35 percent of Ford sales volumes, with trucks and SUVs claiming 65 percent. By 2010, stronger car and crossover sales resulted in a more balanced product range, up to 57 percent of overall volumes. Small cars like the Ford Focus now represent one in five new vehicle sales in the United States, up from 14 percent of the market in 2004.

“With even more new products being offered in the segment, consumers will be given unprecedented choice,” claims Alan Mulally, president and CEO of Ford Motor Co. “Half of all first-time buyers under age 30 buy their first vehicle in the small car segment, which makes it a key segment for competitiveness. The expectations these customers have for a vehicle reflect other influences in their tech-savvy lives, such as mobile phones, laptops and tablet devices, in which ‘small’ equals expressive and sophisticated, rather than basic.”

Focus sales in the United States were up 31 percent in the first half of this year compared with 2011. Ford recently created a third shift at MAP called C-Crew to accommodate that increasing consumer demand. Assemblers on the shift work Friday through Monday. The C-Crew enables MAP to run 120 hours a week and provides all operators with a four-day week.

The A-Crew works a 10-hour day shift Monday through Thursday, while the B-Crew works a 10-hour night shift Tuesday through Friday. Operators on the C-Crew round out the week by working days on Friday and Saturday and nights on Sunday and Monday.

Assemblers build four-door and five-door hatchback versions of the Ford Focus. The flexible manufacturing system at MAP allows them to assemble multiple models equipped with a 2.0-liter engine, including the S sedan; the SE sedan and the SE hatchback.

There are also a couple of sporty versions of the Focus in the production mix—the ST and the Titanium. They feature things such as a high-output EcoBoost engine, polished alloy wheels and leather-trimmed bucket seats. Adding to assembly complexity are numerous interior options, such as hands-free communication and infotainment features.

The newest model in the lineup is the Focus Electric. Except for a decorative front grille and a small door on the passenger-side front fender that resembles a gas cap (it’s the charge port), the vehicle looks identical on the outside to its five-door cousins on the assembly line.

But, it’s a different story under the hood. Instead of a four-cylinder internal combustion engine, there’s a 107-kilowatt electric motor rated at 143-hp. And, the Focus Electric is almost 700 pounds heavier than its gas-powered cousin because of lithium-ion batteries, an inverter, and a liquid cooling and heating system.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certifies the car as America’s most fuel-efficient five-passenger vehicle, with a 110 mpg equivalent city rating. The car also boasts a range of 76 miles on a single charge, thanks to a 23-kilowatt
lithium-ion battery pack and a 6.6-kilowatt onboard charging system that allows the battery to fully recharge in four hours.

In July, MAP started building the C-Max Hybrid, a five-passenger European-style minivan. The vehicle, which uses a gasoline engine and a battery-driven electric motor, is based on the same C-car platform as the Focus but features a body that’s five inches taller. It’s EPA-certified at 47 mpg for either city or highway driving.

Last month, MAP ramped up production of the C-Max Energi. It operates just like the C-Max Hybrid, but also features an external charge port and a larger lithium-ion battery pack. Drivers can plug in the vehicle to fully charge its battery using either a standard 120-volt outlet or the available 240-volt charge station. The vehicle is capable of making trips of more than 20 miles in electric-only mode and longer trips of as much as 550 miles on a single tank of gas and a fully charged battery.

Flexible Lines

Building low-volume hybrid and all-electric vehicles on the same line as high-volume gas-powered models presents a unique set of challenges to MAP engineers and operators. They must contend with an extra layer of complexity, including electric motors, electric inverters and converters, high-voltage  batteries, charge ports, electronic control units and other components that are not found in conventional vehicles.

Large cables and connectors are used to route energy to and from high-voltage batteries, generators, converters and inverters. Wiring harnesses are more complex and heavy batteries require new material handling devices. Batteries are installed in the trunk and underneath the rear seat, while a 120-Volt charger is attached under the floor.

“Traditionally, bulky components are installed on the chassis line of an auto plant,” says Brian Kinnie, MAP assistant plant manager. “The trim line typically installs lighter and softer components, such as seats, carpeting and taillights.”

Assemblers in the MAP trim department must now deal with batteries and other heavy components. “We’re building cars on our trim line with hoists and lift-assist devices that weren’t there before,” explains Kinnie.

“Wiring harnesses no longer consist of just an engine harness and a floor harness,” adds Kinnie. “Operators must now handle huge cable assemblies that connect all the batteries to the motor.”

The gas, electric and hybrid production strategy also forced Ford engineers to make changes on the chassis line. For example, the gas tank assembler is now decking a battery and a power pack.

While the Focus and C-Max share many basic components, assembling the latter requires new operations and parts. For instance, the C-Max has a center-stack shroud and a grille extension on its dashboard.

Another unique component is the integrated system control module, which tells the hybrid car to switch from gas to electric power and vice versa. Assemblers also have to be aware of different battery hook-ups in hybrid and all-electric vehicles.

In addition, there are several key differences in cooling systems between the vehicles. For instance, the Focus Electric is water cooled and does not have a heat shield. On the other hand, the C-Max Hybrid does not have a water jacket, because it’s air-cooled. And, the all-electric unit requires 10 bolts to attach, while the hybrid unit is installed with only six bolts.

Before the start of the chassis line, car bodies are transferred from the skillet conveyor to a clamshell conveyor that allows operators to work underneath. The first workstations attach brake lines, fuel lines and gas tanks.

But, when an all-electric version of the Focus comes down the line, a charging unit is installed instead of a gas tank. Because each charging unit weighs about 45 pounds vs. 25 pounds for a gas tank, a lift-assist arm was installed on the opposite side of the assembly line from the gas tank workstation.

Another part of the chassis line that’s become more complex is the engine and rear suspension area. The operator who normally installs a muffler and tailpipe on the conventional version of the Focus now attaches the lower part of the two-section lithium-ion battery pack across the rear axle on the all-electric vehicle.

“Our cycle time is less than a minute, so operators need to understand what’s coming down the line next,” says Kinnie. To enhance flexibility, each operator knows three jobs on the line, while group leaders know 10 jobs. The plant also relies on synchronous material flow. Parts and components are supplied in kits to each operator in the sequence they need them.

The trim and chassis lines contain 792 assembly information system boxes that help eliminate misbuilds and mistakes caused by human error. The mistake-proofing devices ensure build quality as well as build integrity. A chime on the box alerts operators so they know when to switch assembly tasks.

“It tells operators what’s coming next,” Kinnie points out. “We’re using technology to allow them to know when they have to switch from a routine, high-volume job to an electric vehicle or a hybrid. Our operators are very enthusiastic about building the new vehicles.”

The MAP plant is quieter than its predecessor, because operators use electric power tools rather than pneumatic equipment. Assemblers exert less stress and strain on their arms and wrists, since the new DC-electric devices are lighter and more precise than traditional fastening tools.

The trim and chassis lines are equipped with more than 500 electric nutrunners capable of precisely measuring torque. An angle-sensing function detects incorrectly tightened joints.

The tools are also attached to electronic controllers that calculate and monitor torque using a calibrated transducer.  The DC-electric fastening tools provide accurate feedback and ensure full torque capability at each fastener.

New Lean Philosophy

Ford Motor Co. has long been a leader in lean manufacturing. In fact, many lean principles trace their roots to Henry Ford, such as continuous flow, modular assembly and standardization.

The automaker recently refined its Ford Production System, which has existed since the mid-1990s. “Our goal is to have a single manufacturing operating system that will drive improved efficiencies, increase capacity utilization and make the company an industry leader in lowest total cost production,” says Hoskins.

The Ford Production System is comprised of seven basic pillars that address safety, quality, delivery, cost, people, maintenance and the environment. It encompasses key metrics such as policy deployment, standardized work, visual management, process confirmation, continuous improvement tools, and time and data management.

“The global One Ford plan is making it possible for us to deploy One Manufacturing, a single production system that will pay tremendous dividends through standard processes, greater flexibility and improved investment efficiency,” explains John Fleming, executive vice president of global manufacturing.

“As Ford brings on new facilities, [we are] expanding the use of common manufacturing processes and standard systems for tracking material, delivery, maintenance and environmental costs so that new and existing plants are aligned in how they operate,” adds Fleming. “It is critical that all of our assembly operations, wherever they are located, speak the same language when it comes to producing high-quality vehicles in a safe and efficient way.”

The Focus is the first product produced under the new One Ford mantra. It is engineered, designed, sourced and manufactured globally. The vehicle, which is sold in more than 100 countries worldwide, is also assembled at Ford plants in Chongqing, China; Saarlouis, Germany; St. Petersburg, Russia; and Rayong, Thailand.

At the Michigan Assembly Plant, parts for the Focus are sourced from all over the world. In fact, more than 560 parts are imported from more than 20 countries, including China, Germany, Korea and Mexico. The plant receives 265 sea containers on a weekly basis from European, Asian and South American suppliers.

However, some key electric and hybrid vehicle components are produced locally. For instance, lithium-ion battery packs are assembled at Ford’s Rawsonville, MI, plant, while electric drive transaxles are built at the automaker’s Van Dyke transmission plant in Sterling Heights, MI.

The 2012 Assembly Plant of the Year is being benchmarked by Ford engineers to determine how the company will build electric vehicles at other plants in the future. Part of that process includes standardizing production tools and equipment.

Tools and Technology

Ford installed a wide variety of new technology at MAP to make the facility flexible and productive. That’s important, because the plant is now producing vehicles at a much higher volume than before. With the conversion from trucks to cars, assemblers went from building 45 to 50 SUVs per hour to 70 small cars per hour.

The key to MAP’s flexibility starts in the body shop. New programmable equipment allows Ford to run multiple body styles down the same line with limited downtime for tooling changeover.

More than 180 programmable locator units are used to position multiple sheet metal parts instead of traditional hard-tooled locators. This eliminates the need to replace model-specific tooling for locating, clamping and welding body sides.

“The advantage of the programmable locators is the ability to move to a new taught position to accept various parts within the same tool,” says Jason Moore, body shop manager. “This is a key enabler to support assembling multiple styles through a single line. It requires less than half the floor space and results in a 47 percent savings to add third and fourth models to the mix.”

Seventy percent of the tooling in the 850,000-square-foot MAP body shop is new, including 366 robots. The pride and joy is a heavy-duty six-axis machine dubbed “Godzilla.”

“It serves as our vehicle transfer system,” explains Moore. “This mega-robot precisely picks up bodies off the pallets we use in the shop and places them on skids that carry them through the paint shop.

“The robot replaced the need for traditional lift and transfer systems that use mechanical tooling,” adds Moore. “This reduced our floor space by more than 40 percent. It also decreased system complexity by removing extensive hard tooling. In the past, the transfer process required the use of forklifts and other nonflexible material handling devices.”

Moore and his colleagues are also proud of their spark-free welding initiative. Unlike most automotive body shops, the MAP facility has few sparks flying through the air. In fact, it is 86 percent spark-free thanks to 445 full-adaptive weld timers.

Adaptive control technology uses hardware and software to precisely adjust welding parameters, in real time, so every weld is performed within the tightest quality tolerances. Weld guns receive real-time feedback of conditions on a component’s surface and adjust the current flow to just the right level to complete the weld without generating an explosion of sparks.

This is a much more efficient, cleaner and environmentally friendly process than what’s typically used in auto plants. Adaptive control technology also reduces the risk of particulates affecting the fit and finish of vehicles.

The flash-free process assists in the elimination of weld balls and weld flash—a major cause of defects in automotive paint shops. “Spark-free welding has been a godsend for us,” says Terry Appleton, MAP paint shop manager. “There’s less dirt and grit accumulating in our filters. Due to the new process, we now have better incoming quality from the body shop.”

The 832,450-square-foot MAP paint shop also uses a new three-wet paint application that is more environmentally friendly than traditional multi-stage paint processes. It’s the first mass-production application of the technology in the United States.

“In most other automotive plants, we apply a layer of paint called the primer coat and we bake the unit, and then we put on the base coat and the clear coat, and we bake it again,” says John Nowak, environmental engineer. “The three-wet process allows us to put on primer, base and clear, and bake it only once.” Paint is applied wet on wet, which eliminates sanding between coats and eliminates the risk of contaminants.

Ford saves electricity from the blowers that run the robotic paint booths and the ovens, plus all the natural gas needed to heat the air and the ovens. That cuts $3 million annually in energy, environmental and maintenance costs.

During the transformation of the Michigan Assembly Plant, skillet conveyors were installed on the trim line to address ergonomic issues. That involved digging a three-foot pit in the floor and installing more than 400 electric motors to propel the system.

Skillets are used on the last four of MAP’s seven trim lines. Assemblers on those lines install soft-trim components, such as headliners and carpeting, and hard-trim components, such as plastic A-B pillars, instrument panels and consoles.

Operators ride on skillets as they work. The skillets have individual pallets for every vehicle, and are capable of adjusting to each operator’s height and work activities as the vehicle moves from workstation to workstation. Instead of bending or reaching up to perform a task, the vehicle is raised or lowered automatically to match the height necessary for the assembler to do the job with less strain.

Another flexible feature at MAP is an engine decking system that features integrated front and rear suspension build assembly lines, linked by a twin-strand conveyor. A wheel corner build subassembly line was also installed at the facility.

Pallets travel to build stations along a conveyor loop. The pallets are held at each build station by cushioned anti-backup stops until build for that station is complete, and then they are released back on the continuously moving conveyor to travel to the next station.

The front module assembly line also incorporates accumulating stops, pallet diverters, and lift and rotate stations to allow both sides of the pallet to be worked on. These conveyor systems streamline the assembly process while feeding the engine decking system.

The completed front suspension with the engine pallet is loaded onto chassis marriage carts by an elevator that transfers the pallet to the cart using extending conveyors. Once on the cart, additional assembly tasks are completed prior to decking.

The 21 carts travel around the marriage loop at variable speeds and through several build stations. When carts reach the decking area, electric lifts marry the completed chassis to the vehicle body where it is then fastened. The empty engine pallets are offloaded by an elevator and re-enter the front suspension build conveyor.

About the Award

The Assembly Plant of the Year award was initiated in 2004 to showcase world-class production facilities in America, and the people, products and processes that make them successful. All manufacturers that assemble products in the United States are invited to nominate their plants. Unlike many other awards, there is no entry fee and only one facility is recognized.

The Assembly Plant of the Year award is sponsored by ASSEMBLY Magazine. The goal of the  award is to identify a state-of-the-art facility that has applied world-class processes to reduce production cost, increase productivity, shorten time to market or improve product quality.

An official nomination form appeared on the magazine’s Web site earlier this year. Nominations were received from a diverse group of manufacturers that reflect the magazine’s demographics. All nominees were evaluated by ASSEMBLY’s editorial staff, based on criteria such as:

•Have assembly processes been improved through the use of new technology?

•Has the plant improved its performance by making more effective use of existing technology?

•Has the plant taken steps to reduce production costs?

•Have new or improved assembly processes resulted in increased productivity?

•Has the plant used assembly improvements to reduce time to market?

•Has the plant boosted bottom-line profits and competitive advantage?

•Did operators play a role in the successful implementation of new assembly strategies?

•Has a product been effectively designed for efficient assembly?

•Has the plant attempted to protect the environment and conserve natural resources?

As winner of the 9th annual Assembly Plant of the Year competition, Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant received an engraved crystal award and a commemorative banner during a special presentation at the plant.

Previous recipients of the Assembly Plant of the Year award were Philips Respironics (New Kensington, PA); Eaton Corp. (Lincoln, IL); Batesville Casket Co. (Manchester, TN); IBM Corp. (Poughkeepsie, NY); Schneider Electric/Square D (Lexington, KY); Lear Corp. (Montgomery, AL); Xerox Corp. (Webster, NY); and Kenworth Truck Co. (Renton, WA).

A nomination form for the 2013 award will be available on ASSEMBLY's web site in early January.

Check out the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant photo gallery and videos:  

Behind the Scenes at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant   

Assembly TV: Inside MAP

Assembly TV: Ford's Flexible MAP Plant


Web Exclusives:

Suppliers Play a Key Role Behind Ford's MAP Success


Robotic Laser Inspection System Improves Ford MAP Quality

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Behind the Scenes at Ford's Michigan Assembly Plant

People are the heart and soul of the 2012 Assembly Plant of the Year. This slideshow shows some of the men and women who build three different types of electrified vehicles alongside traditional gas-powered cars on the auto industry’s most flexible assembly line—Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, MI. Photos courtesy Ford Motor Co.

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