Ford's new Dearborn Truck Plant takes flexible assembly to the next level.

For many years, Ford Motor Co. (Dearborn, MI) has flexed its muscle on the world's race tracks. The blue oval has won events at "shrines" of speed, such as Daytona, Indianapolis, LeMans, Monaco and Monza.

Now, the 101-year-old automaker is focusing on flexible manufacturing. Its showcase is the newly revamped Rouge-the company's largest manufacturing complex, located along the banks of the Rouge River near Ford's world headquarters.

Ford invested $2 billion to turn an industrial icon of the 20th century into a state-of-the-art 21st century lean manufacturing showcase. The new Rouge Center features the auto industry's most flexible and environmentally friendly assembly line.

The 600-acre Rouge complex is comprised of multiple buildings, including a stamping plant, an engine assembly plant, and a tool and die plant, staffed with 6,000 employees. Ford recently closed the aging Dearborn Assembly Plant that built Mustangs for the past 40 years in the same building that mass-produced the popular Model A in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Mustang production has been shifted to the much newer Auto Alliance plant (Flat Rock, MI).

The star of the reborn Rouge is the 2.3-million-square-foot Dearborn Truck Plant, Ford's first new assembly facility built in North America since 1987. It consists of several standalone buildings connected by enclosed conveyors, including a 780,580-square foot body shop, a 680,890-square-foot paint shop and a 867,250-square-foot final assembly plant. The later building was built on a site previously occupied by a railroad yard that served the Rouge complex.

New Life for an Old Plant

Henry Ford integrated many types of just-in-time manufacturing operations at the sprawling Rouge complex, which opened in 1918. He envisioned "a continuous, nonstop process from raw material to finished product with no pause even for warehousing or storage." In addition to assembly lines, the original 2,000-acre complex included a steel mill, a foundry, a glass plant and a tire factory. Ford boasted that the Rouge featured "the largest completely mechanized installation of handling equipment ever installed in any industrial enterprise." Some observers called it "a cathedral for the industrial revolution."

In its heyday, the Rouge was 1.5 miles wide and more than 1 mile long. More than 100,000 people worked in 100 different buildings that featured 120 miles of conveyors. The site had its own railroad with 100 miles of track and 16 locomotives. During peak production in the 1930s and 1940s, the Rouge produced one new car every 49 seconds.

The Rouge was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978. During the past 86 years, the facility has mass-produced millions of famous vehicles, including Fordson tractors in the 1920s, Model A sedans in the 1930s, Willys jeeps and M4 tanks in the 1940s, Thunderbird sports cars in the 1950s and Fairlane coupes in the early 1960s.

However, after Ford spun off its steel-making operation in the 1980s, the historic manufacturing complex was in danger of closing. Faced with foreign competition and declining market share, some top executives wanted to shutter the facility and concentrate on new assembly plants being built in Brazil, China, India and Mexico. But, in the late 1990s, Bill Ford, Henry's great grandson who currently serves as chairman and CEO of the automaker, confronted skeptics and decided not to turn his back on history. Instead, he launched a bold, controversial initiative to revitalize the old Rouge-Ford's most tangible connection to its storied past-and turn it into a new benchmark for today's auto industry. He envisioned a facility that could address today's manufacturing challenges while nurturing the environment.

"Integrated manufacturing wasn't invented at the Rouge," says Ford. "But, it was refined, combined and perfected in a way that changed the world. Over time, we hope to do the same for sustainable manufacturing with the Rouge Center redevelopment project and have an even greater impact around the world."

Ford hired William McDonough, a Charlottesville, VA-based architect who specializes in environmentally friendly designs and preaches the benefits of environmentally benign, sustainable design. In the mid-1990s, McDonough designed a widely acclaimed plant for office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller Inc. (Zeeland, MI) dubbed the "GreenHouse" because of its extensive use of natural light. He also designed Ford's assembly plant in Bahia, Brazil, which opened in 2001.

After several years of extensive work, the Rouge has been transformed to accommodate shifting consumer tastes in the age of mass customization and environmental awareness. According to McDonough, the Rouge Center represents "the largest industrial redevelopment project in U.S. history" and "a vision of sustainable manufacturing for the future." For instance, the plant features the world's largest "living roof." Vegetation stores water and reduces storm water runoff while insulating the building.

The new facility also attempts to recognize the unique history and heritage of the Rouge. For instance, many workers use a new pedestrian bridge that is modeled after the original structure that was the site of the bloody "Battle of the Overpass" on May 26, 1937, a pivotal moment in the history of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union. During the infamous event, a group of union organizers clashed with security guards.

In addition, part of the original Dearborn Glass Plant has been preserved for use as an employee training center. The curved glass-paneled building, designed by Albert Kahn in the early 1920s, is recognized as a landmark by architectural experts because it influenced the design of many important 20th century structures.

When it ramps up to full production later this year, the Dearborn Truck Plant will employ more than 2,000 people and turn out 250,000 vehicles annually. Assemblers are currently producing the Ford F-150 pickup truck, which is also assembled at plants in Kansas City and Norfolk, VA.

According to Jim Padilla, Ford's chief operating officer, the F-Series has been the nation's best-selling truck for 27 consecutive years and the best-selling vehicle for 22 years in a row. In 2003, Ford sold more than 840,000 F-Series vehicles. The product is Ford's top moneymaker, contributing approximately 14 percent to the company's revenue in North America.

Flexible Assembly System

In today's constantly changing, customer-focused automotive market, manufacturing flexibility is crucial to long-term success. Reconfigurable assembly lines help automakers reduce time to market and slash production costs.

The Dearborn Truck Plant is capable of interchanging three vehicle platforms, producing nine different models in the same facility. It has the ability to easily absorb other vehicles into the plant. Assembly lines can be configured to accommodate front-wheel-drive, rear-wheel-drive, unitized body and body-on-frame vehicles.

That gives Ford the ability to run the new plant all the time. It can use a variety of products to juggle market demands. If necessary, production can expand with little impact on existing operations.

Ford has not revealed what types of vehicles it plans to assemble at the Rouge alongside the F-150, but possible candidates include other popular products, such as the Explorer, Focus and Ranger. The company is also developing an aggressive portfolio of new products. For instance, it plans to introduce more than 50 new products over the next four years.

Padilla, who formerly held management positions in engineering and manufacturing, has been leading Ford's ambitious crusade to boost quality and cut costs. At the same time that it has been attempting to slash $5 billion in parts and other costs as part of a five-year restructuring program, the automaker has been investing billions of dollars in flexible assembly tools and equipment.

Padilla believes that investment will result in better quality, higher productivity, fewer injuries, and faster response to consumer demands. For instance, Ford expects to save up to $2 billion over the next decade because its flexible system costs 10 percent to 15 percent less than traditional, nonflexible systems, with an added 50 percent savings in changeover costs.

The flexible manufacturing system uses robots, conveyors, fixtures and other equipment that can be reprogrammed to build vehicles with different designs, such as a four-door sedan, a two-seat sportscar, a pickup truck and a sports utility vehicle. It will allow Ford to rapidly change its mix of products and produce a greater variety of vehicles on the same assembly line.

The Dearborn Truck Plant is the third Ford facility in the United States to adopt flexible manufacturing. The company's Norfolk plant was the first to install the flexible production system. Flexible equipment has also been installed in the Kansas City plant.

Other Ford plants currently installing flexible equipment include the Chicago Assembly Plant, which will build the all-new 2005 Ford Freestyle, Ford Five Hundred and Mercury Montego, and the AutoAlliance plant, which will assemble the redesigned 2005 Mustang. Both plants are expected to reopen later this year.

Padilla claims that by 2006, half of Ford's body shop, trim and final assembly operations in North America will be flexible. That number will rise to 75 percent by the end of the decade.

"With increasing market segmentation, the flexible assembly system means we can react more quickly to meet changing customer demand," says Roman Krygier, group vice president, global manufacturing and quality. "We will be able to produce a wider variety of vehicles, change the mix of products and options, and change volumes faster and with minimal added cost. Those are benefits we can pass along to our customers."

The key to producing the right vehicle at the right time to meet customer demand is a flexible body shop. "Flexibility in the body shop is the most important component of flexible manufacturing because of the complexity and cost of the operation," claims Al Ver, vice president of advanced manufacturing engineering. "Our new system has standard components that provide greater economies of scale when purchasing equipment, with greater reuse of that equipment."

The L-shaped body shop at the Dearborn Truck Plant has the ability to change the mix and volume of products in response to consumer demand and market segmentation-all with minimal investment and changeover time. Its 280 robotic welders can be quickly retooled and reprogrammed to build new models in a matter of days, not months. For instance, robots can be added or changed on weekend downtimes.

The body shop uses a system of 16 standardized cells, or modules, that each perform a specific assembly function. "The cells are arranged to create subsystems," says Ver. "For example, one cell applies sealer or adhesive; two cells are different types of tool trays; three different cells handle welding; and a pallet cell moves the body along the assembly line."

According to Ver, 294 standard components were used to build all 16 cells. Approximately 80 percent of the system uses generic tooling. "Only a portion of the product-specific tooling on vertical trays, horizontal gates or on robot arms, needs to be changed or modified with the computers and robots reprogrammed, to accommodate different models or platforms," says Ver. "Most of the equipment, such as the robots, controls and utilities, will remain intact. That will have a tremendous impact on cutting our costs and reducing downtime during product changeover."

Standardization allows Ford engineers to use common assembly processes, equipment and components. For instance, the same types of pallets are used in Dearborn, Kansas City and Norfolk. As a result, the number of different weld guns on welding robots has been reduced from 262 to 35. The number of different shunts, which carry electrical current between the weld body and the gun tips, has been reduced from 95 to five. "This reduces repair time, spare parts and design costs," says Ver.

Vehicle bodies are carried on smart pallets equipped with transponders that tell robots what to fabricate. The robots can perform up to 99 different welding procedures. The flexible pallets feature adjustable fixturing that can accommodate the model mix between three F-150 models that feature different types of passenger compartments: Regular, super and crew cab.

According to Ver, standardizing the assembly process improves productivity through reduced changeover downtime. It also helps improve quality through increased repeatability. And, it improves ease of access, which improves safety and ergonomics for operators and maintenance personnel.

New Tools and Techniques

The same type of standardization found in the new body shop is also used in the final assembly plant at the Rouge Center. Final assembly operations have a standard sequence, with standardized workstations that can be changed or modified quickly to accommodate new vehicle options or features.

Engineers examined the F-150 assembly processes and made improvements in process sequencing, tooling and parts design. They used computer simulation tools to design all equipment and processes in the new Dearborn Truck Plant.

As a result, Padilla says approximately 400 ergonomic improvements have been made to the new F-150 production process, which enhance operator safety and comfort, and improve quality. "Quality is critical," Padilla points out. "It's the fundamental building block. It's easy to fix problems. It's much harder to fix processes."

Few operators need to work with their hands above their heads, or stoop to do a job below their knees. On some of the final assembly lines in the Dearborn Truck Plant, 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 operator to do the job with less strain.

The new plant is also quieter, because operators use electric power tools rather than pneumatic equipment. The DC electric fastening tools exert less stress and strain on the operators' arms and wrists, because they are lighter and more precise than traditional fastening tools.

Error-proofing is a key part of Ford's new production philosophy. For instance, the final assembly line is equipped with more than 600 electric nutrunners that feature an angle-sensing function that detects incorrectly tightened joints. The tools are also attached to electronic controllers that calculate and monitor torque using a calibrated transducer. To help operators tighten bolts in the correct order and not forget any fasteners, the controllers can be programmed so that an all-OK signal is sent only when all joints have been correctly tightened.

"The DC electric fastening tools provide accurate feedback and ensure full torque capability at each fastener," says Louise Goeser, Ford vice president of quality. That helps eliminate annoying squeaks and rattles, which often lead to higher warranty costs.

The Dearborn Truck Plant also has 432 assembly information system boxes that help eliminate misbuilds and mistakes caused by human error. "The operator mistake-proofing devices ensure build quality as well as build integrity," says Goeser. It allows operators to communicate directly to their team leaders. "That eliminates possible ‘stack-up' quality issues by ensuring that an operation gets fully completed at the best quality level before passing on to the next operation."

Andon boards hang from the ceiling throughout the plant. The scoreboard-like electronic displays serve as a visual control to help operators quickly and accurately gauge production status at a glance. Progress indicators and problem indicators inform everyone in the plant whether production is ahead, behind or on schedule.

According to Goeser, the boards give every operator and supervisor constant feedback on how the plant is operating compared with the day's planned production. They contain vital production data, such as actual vs. scheduled production numbers, downtime and quality trends.

Forklifts are banned from production areas of the Dearborn Assembly Plant. Material flows to the line using tugs and dollies. Assemblers have a 2-hour supply of parts along the assembly line and a 10-hour supply in the entire plant. Numerous loading docks allow suppliers to deliver parts, components and modules continually. As a result, inventory space has been reduced by 50 percent, while significantly improving flow throughout.

The plant uses a synchronous material flow system (SMF) based on a weekly predictive scheduling system. The SMF coordinates with suppliers to provide just-in-time component inventory for vehicle production, minimizing on-site inventories.

Using the same schedule, in-line sequencing produces vehicles in a particular order, so that vehicle bodies match the correct components and arrive at the operator at precisely the right time and place. Sequencing allows the operator to go to one single point to get a component. That helps eliminate wasted effort, while improving parts storage space and optimizing production efficiency. More than 4 miles of conveyors snake their way throughout the plant, including 250 skillets.

Friendly Environment

The organization, structure, layout and production process at the Dearborn Truck Plant is designed around providing support for operators. Indeed, operators played a key role in establishing assembly processes and procedures. Engineers asked hourly workers for help in designing workstations, placing equipment, planning workflow, scheduling material flow and setting work procedures.

Employees also play a pivotal role in the new plant's inverted pyramid management system. Operators work in small teams, each with a team leader. Supervisors advise and support the teams.

The building's design provides a clean, quiet and well-lit environment. An air tempering system, aided by the "living roof" planted with sedum, keeps the interior at least 10 degrees cooler than the outside temperature in the summer and reduces energy costs in the winter. Ten huge monitors that measure 25-by-100-feet, in addition to 36 smaller skylights scattered throughout the plant, admit natural light and fresh air. Many breakrooms and meeting rooms are located on a mezzanine directly under the skylights.

The plant also features high ceilings and overhead walkways that minimize pedestrian floor traffic. Aisles are six to nine feet wider than in traditional auto assembly plants. The 18-foot-wide aisles are clear of parts and components.

In addition, the number of assembly workstations has been reduced by 40 percent. And, a doors-off assembly process makes it easier for operators to work inside each vehicle. Doors are reattached near the end of the assembly line.

According to Jim Padilla, the new plant serves as the flagship of 21st century manufacturing. "There's nothing like it anywhere in the world," he claims.

However, to be considered world-class, automotive assembly plants must score well in the Harbour Report, an annual study conducted by Harbour Consulting (Troy, MI). Operators and management at the Dearborn Truck Plant hope to achieve an ambitious production target of 20 hours per vehicle. To hit that goal, the facility must be flexible and efficient, with an emphasis on speed and quality.

By comparison, Ford's Norfolk plant ranked as the third most efficient assembler of full-size pick-up trucks in last year's Harbour Report. It took an average of 22.5 labor-hours to assemble an F-150, which was 18 minutes better than the previous year. General Motors' Oshawa, ON, plant was the most productive full-size pick-up plant at 20.4 hours per vehicle.

Educating a New Generation

One unique aspect of the Dearborn Truck Plant is that it is partially accessible to the general public. For many years, millions of visitors to Detroit, and local school groups, flocked to the original Rouge complex to get a close-up look at manufacturing. Many visitors never forgot the feel of standing just a few feet away from a moving assembly line. But, that stopped in 1980, when Ford discontinued the popular tours after 56 years.

As part of the Rouge redevelopment project, Ford built a high-tech visitor center so a new generation can get a first-hand glimpse of the vehicle assembly process and learn more about manufacturing. The five-part, multisensory Rouge Factory Tour mixes history and technology in an attraction designed to appeal to contemporary audiences.

In fact, the visitor center has been described as "part history museum, part Disney attraction." During their 90-minute visit, the public learns how the Rouge operated 75 years ago, then see, hear, smell and feel life on the plant floor today.

The self-guided tour is sponsored by Ford in partnership with The Henry Ford (formerly known as the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village). Tours begin at the museum, where visitors board special video-equipped buses and take a 15-minute ride to the Rouge Center.

The 75,000-square-foot visitor center features a display of famous cars built at the Rouge over the years, such as a 1929 Model A, a 1949 Club Coupe and a 1965 Mustang. Visitors are ushered into a 75-seat theatre where they learn about the history of the Rouge on three screens that display vintage movies and historic black-and-white images.

Visitors then enter a seven-screen, 360-degree theatre that simulates key stages in the automobile production process through digital images and special effects. Visitors experience a barrage of sights, sounds, smells and sensations during a 14-minute presentation entitled The Art of Manufacturing.

The program features choreographed classical music performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The dramatic score rises and falls depending on what's happening on the screen, which features digital footage shot at five Ford plants in North America. Special effects include hot air from a blast furnace during a steelmaking scene, a vibrating floor during a stamping press sequence, smoke and the smell of burning metal during a welding scene and red mist during a robotic paint shop sequence.

Visitors then board an elevator to an 80-foot-tall observation deck that offers a panoramic view of the entire Rouge facility, including the "living roof" atop the Dearborn Truck Plant. The observation deck features a series of kiosks that examine the history of the Rouge and explain current assembly processes, such as flexible manufacturing.

The highlight for many visitors is the view of the final assembly plant. An open-air catwalk winds above part of the plant, allowing the public to see operators attaching wiring harnesses, headlights, taillights, windshields, door components, steering wheels, instrument panels and tailgates.

During their one-third-mile walk, visitors can stop at six different viewing platforms. Key steps in the final assembly process are highlighted at each platform with special information kiosks. The interactive kiosks, in addition to television monitors, provide detailed information about what's happening on the factory floor below.

Ford worked in conjunction with BRG Imagination Arts (Burbank, CA) to give the visitor center a Disney-type flavor. More than 250,000 visitors a year are expected to pay $14 each to get a close-up look at the production process.

"The tour brings together modern technology and historical interpretation in a physical setting that blends the best of both worlds," says Tim O'Brien, Ford vice president of corporate relations. "What you see at the Dearborn Truck Plant and Ford Rouge Center is really the manufacturing story that will propel our company well into this century.

"We've incorporated our best manufacturing know-how into a world-class facility, where people and the environment are front and center," adds O'Brien. "We've turned an aging icon into a manufacturing model that honors the past, optimizes the present and creates a positive imprint for the future."