For many years, it was the epicenter of the manufacturing world.

It was big. It was bold. It was breathtaking. For most of the 20th century, the world-famous River Rouge plant was a monumental complex that was the embodiment of manufacturing on an epic scale.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the sprawling Rouge plant was the largest industrial facility in the world. It was the only place on earth where you could see the entire automaking process in one day. And, the Rouge was the heart and soul of Ford Motor Co.

There were huge ore docks, steel furnaces, coke ovens, rolling mills, glass furnaces and plate-glass rollers. In addition to several chassis assembly lines, the self-sufficient complex included a tire-making plant, a stamping plant, an engine casting plant, a transmission plant, a radiator plant, and a tool and die plant. At one time, the unique facility even included a paper mill and a soybean conversion plant that turned soybeans into plastic auto parts.

A massive power plant produced enough electricity to light thousands of homes. There was so much electricity to spare that the plant provided the city of Detroit with a million kilowatts of excess power every day. Ford boasted that the Rouge facility featured "the largest completely mechanized installation of handling equipment ever installed in any industrial enterprise."

Located a few miles south of downtown Detroit, at the confluence of the Rouge River and the Detroit River, the original Rouge complex was a mile and a half wide and more than a mile long. The statistics are mind-boggling:

  • 93 separate buildings totaling 15,767,708 square feet of floor area.
  • 53,000 machine tools.
  • 30 miles of internal roads.
  • 5,500 tons of coal was consumed every day.
  • 100 miles of railroad tracks and 16 locomotives.
  • 538 million gallons of water was consumed daily.
  • 120 miles of conveyors.
  • More than 6,000 tons of iron smelted every day.
  • 13.4 miles of glass rolled each day.
  • Maintenance workers used 16,000 gallons of paint per month.
  • Every 49 seconds, a new car rolled off the assembly line.
At its peak in the 1940s, more than 100,000 people worked at the facility. To accommodate them, the Rouge complex included a multi-station fire department, a scheduled bus service, a police force, a fully staffed hospital and a maintenance crew 5,000 strong. Every month, 3,500 mop heads had to be replaced to keep the complex clean.

But, statistics alone fail to capture the magnificent power and presence of this enormous industrial icon, conceived by Henry Ford and known simply as "The Rouge."

"When you hear the word 'manufacturing,' in most cases, the picture that pops into your head is usually a sepia-toned aerial view of Ford's sprawling facility on the Rouge River," says Jamie Flinchbaugh, a partner at the Lean Learning Center (Novi, MI). "Even if you don't know it, you've seen it many times—in high school history books, in encyclopedias and in the movies: Huge barges and freighters moored next to giant mounds of ore and coal; scores of smokestacks punctuating the sky; a complex of factories; and, of course, vehicles rolling steadily off assembly lines.

"Material flowed in, parts were welded and bolted together, and automobiles flowed out; from the receiving docks to the shipping docks in only three days," explains Flinchbaugh. "The Rouge is everyone's archetypal idea of mass production—the idea of what mass production can be. Henry Ford and the Rouge are part of America's mythic consciousness.

"In the 1950s and 1960s, many Midwestern kids climbed into yellow school buses for field trips to Dearborn, MI, specifically to tour the Rouge facility. We made these pilgrimages to the Rouge for one reason: To see the miracle of American manufacturing. Then we visited the nearby Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village to understand how it all began.

"No baby boomer who visited Dearborn ever forgot it," claims Flinchbaugh. "Gone, of course, were the days of the three-day Model A, but massive amounts of materials were moved by massive numbers of people in a way that still seems like choreography—and it was."

Pastoral Beginnings

The Rouge was conceived and pieced together by Henry Ford. In fact, the Rouge represented a long succession of "let's-try-it" decisions. The first came with Henry Ford's purchase of the land a few miles from his childhood home in Dearborn, the same marshlands where he hiked and watched birds as a boy.

Ford began buying the property that was to become the Rouge in 1915. In total, he acquired a 2,000-acre stretch of bottomland along the Rouge River. At one time, Ford considered turning the land into a large bird sanctuary.

That plan changed near the end of World War I, when Undersecretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt engaged Ford to build a fleet of Eagle-class submarine chasers.

In 1918, Ford built a fabricating building and a 1,700-foot-long erecting building. Inside were three assembly lines, each capable of carrying seven boats. Each 204-foot vessel was assembled with 260,000 rivets. Each keel was laid on a 200-foot railroad flatcar, which was towed down the assembly line as work on the hull progressed. When a finished hull reached the south door of the building, it was moved onto a large transfer platform and rolled on rail toward a slip. It was then rolled onto a launching trestle that was hydraulically lowered below the water in the slip, leaving the boat to float.

Before the last of the Eagles were assembled in 1919, Ford moved auto body-building machinery into the buildings, which were later transformed into chassis assembly lines.

The war demonstrated how vulnerable Ford Motor Co. was to supply shortages. For instance, the Highland Park plant suffered a number of work stoppages because of supplier failures.

Ford and his team of engineers took all the lessons learned at Highland Park and expanded them. "The Rouge was the culmination of three decades of experimentation with factory planning and design," says Lindy Biggs, a history professor at Auburn University (Auburn, AL) and the author of The Rational Factory (Johns Hopkins University Press). "It seemed to represent the direction in which modern industry would move, in both building style and production methods; it was a harbinger of things to come.

"The plant that Ford build on Detroit's Rouge River was a new kind of factory," explains Biggs. "It was innovative not only for its size and suburban location but for its buildings, plant organization, and the fact that it produced and processed almost every component of the Ford car."

According to Biggs, the Rouge complex was a great, integrated machine that was unlike other auto factories. "It was so large and had so many diverse operations that it looked more like an industrial city than a factory."

Henry Ford decided to make his company self-sufficient through vertical integration. His ultimate goal was to achieve total self-sufficiency by owning, operating and coordinating all the resources needed to produce complete automobiles.

Ford acquired 700,000 acres of forest, iron mines and limestone quarries in northern Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The company also owned coal mines in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Ford even purchased and operated a rubber plantation in Brazil. To bring all these materials to the Rouge, Ford owned a regional railroad and operated a fleet of ore freighters.

Ford's quest for vertical integration hinged on the idea of continuous flow "from earth to assembly." According to Ford, the idea was to achieve "a continuous, nonstop process from raw material to finished product with no pause even for warehousing or storage."

Allan Nevins, co-author of a landmark book entitled Ford: The Times, The Man, The Company (Charles Scribner's Sons), describes the Rouge as "a domain that was without parallel both in size and in sheer mechanical efficiency. The total effect on the observer was both unique and impressive. The first impression was one of vastness and complexity.

"At 8 o'clock on Monday morning, ore arriving in the slip was transferred to the blast furnace," explains Nevins. "At noon on Tuesday it was molten iron being poured into a foundry mold, and later that afternoon a finished motor travelling by trunk-line conveyor toward final assembly."

Ford's dream of making an affordable car for the masses required him to continuously reduce costs. "If those who sell to us will not manufacture at prices which, upon investigation, we believe to be right, then we will make the articles ourselves," Ford warned.

Ford's ambition was never completely realized. At no time, for example, did Ford have fewer than 6,000 suppliers serving the Rouge. But, no one has ever come so close to achieving vertical integration on such a grand scale. In fact, designing for flow and efficiency would become the precursor of today's lean manufacturing.

The Art of Production

For many years, the Rouge influenced the world of art. For instance, the complex is famous for its contribution to industrial architecture. Most of the buildings were designed by Albert Kahn, one the most renowned architects of his day.

Unlike traditional auto plants, which utilized multiple floors, Kahn's Rouge buildings featured single-story construction and steel framing. "More efficient assembly was possible on one floor, and there was little need for all the fireproofing, corrosion resistance and vibration damping that made reinforced concrete so valuable in tall buildings," says Patrick Malone, a professor of American Civilization at Brown University (Providence, RI) and co-author of The Texture of Industry (Oxford University Press).

"Steel framing was strong and easy to erect, and it took up less space than concrete," adds Malone. "The wide roof trusses that could be built with steel allowed [engineers] to dispense with supporting columns, thus allowing more flexibility in equipment layout."

Kahn managed to add a sense of light and air to many of the buildings by using the Pond truss. This tall, distinctive M-shaped roof was engineered for maximum performance in ventilating and lighting the factory interior. One of the first structures constructed at the Rouge, the B building used for Eagle boat assembly, marked a milestone in plant layout. The building was the first to enclose an entire Ford manufacturing operation in a single structure and on one floor. It was also Ford's first steel-framed structure. When the Rouge glass plant was erected in 1922 with heavily glassed upper walls and ceiling, it was hailed as "the single factory that carries industrial architecture forward more than any other."

According to Brian Carter, chairman of the architecture department at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), Kahn's buildings were "representative of an integrative approach to design, an enthusiasm for technology, and a belief in the potential of production."

Thanks to a series of photos, paintings and murals that were created in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Rouge is the most famous industrial sight in the world. "Through the photographic image, and subsequently the painterly eye, Albert Kahn's reluctant contributions to Modernism were transformed into icons that became an inspiration for the modern," claims Carter.

Charles Sheeler (1883-1965) was a painter and photographer who specialized in industrial scenes. His artwork often graced the cover of Fortune magazine during the 1930s. Sheeler once compared American factories to the great cathedrals of medieval Europe. According to Richard Guy Wilson, an architectural history professor at the University of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA), Sheeler became enamored with the Rouge complex and "raised up coal bunkers, conveyor tubes and body presses as the American equivalent to European monuments of civilization."

Many industrialists shared Sheeler's vision, including Henry Ford, who declared: "The man who builds a factory builds a temple. The man who works there worships there."

In 1927, Sheeler was commissioned by Ford's ad agency, N.W. Ayer & Son (Philadelphia), to take a series of photos of the Rouge as part of a campaign for the introduction of the Model A. "The campaign was the first to portray a beauty and heroism in the manufacturing process in order to spur sales," says Wilson, co-author of The Machine Age in America, 1918-1941 (Harry N. Abrams Inc.). "The Rouge ads started a fad, as many advertisers found that industrial views could be used in popular, mass-circulation magazines as well as trade journals."

Sheeler's most famous photo was entitled "Criss-Crossed Conveyors." It was published in the February 1928 issue of Vanity Fair magazine with the following caption: "In a landscape where size, quantity and speed are the cardinal virtues, it is natural that the largest factory, turning out the most cars in the least time, should come to have the quality of America's Mecca."

Sheeler also created a series of oil paintings depicting scenes at the Rouge. One of his most famous, "American Landscape," is part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art (New York).

The Rouge also was depicted in the world's most famous assembly line painting. In 1933, Edsel Ford and the Detroit Institute of Arts commissioned Diego Rivera (1886-1957) to create two giant murals for the entrance of its new museum. Rivera based his multipaneled tableau, "Detroit Industry," on the River Rouge complex, where he spent several weeks studying and sketching various production processes.

Rivera's murals, in contrast to Sheeler's outdoor landscapes, provide a glimpse inside the buildings of the Rouge. The North Wall depicts the assembly of a 1932 Ford V-8 engine and transmission, while the South Wall illustrates the Model A chassis assembly process.

For his Production and Manufacture of Engine and Transmission mural, Rivera combined the interiors of five buildings at the Rouge: the blast furnace, open hearth furnace, production foundry, motor assembly plant and steel rolling mills.

"He isolated the individual manufacturing and production processes and represented each in a separate perspective scheme so that one can clearly differentiate each process," says Linda Bank Downs, author of Diego Rivera: The Detroit Industry Murals (W.W. Norton). "He ties them together via curving conveyor lines, so that each section is visually connected to the next."

Rivera was fascinated by conveyors, and used them throughout his murals. According to Downs, Rivera studied the assembly processes carefully and "created an integrated composition capturing the movement of conveyors, workers and machines." Rivera used some artistic license in the murals. For instance, the final assembly line is teeming with workers wearing overalls, while the actual line employed much fewer men who wore smocks. "What is accurate, however, is every detail of the chassis, the pulley system and the conveyor line," says Downs. "The function of the machinery was so well understood that when engineers looked at the finished murals, they found each part accurately designed."

Witness to Labor History

The Rouge continued to operate throughout the Great Depression, yet Ford's obsession with ever-increasing cost reductions through methodical efficiency studies made life difficult for workers.

On May 26, 1937, when a group of union organizers led by Walter Reuther attempted to distribute union literature at the Rouge, Ford security agents and a gang of hired thugs beat them severely. The infamous event, captured by newsreel cameras, became known as the Battle of the Overpass. It was a pivotal moment in the history of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union.

The Rouge settled down with UAW representation before World War II broke out. During the war, the giant complex produced thousands of military jeeps, tanks, trucks and airplane engines.

In the late 1940s, the roar of the Rouge began to fade as Ford Motor Co. embarked on a new era that stressed decentralization and a more global approach. The company grew to rely more and more on an ever-increasing cadre of suppliers and to methodically extract itself from other fields such as mining, lumbering and glass making.

In 1981, steel-making operations at the Rouge became part of a new independent company. When these operations were sold to Rouge Steel in 1989, Ford gave up ownership of all Rouge River frontage and boat docks, as well as 45 percent of the original 2,000 acres.

Over time, the number of operations and jobs at the Rouge dropped. Economic pressures mounted to retire old brownfield manufacturing facilities and to replace them with state-of-the-art greenfield plants. However, Ford and the UAW established a modern operating agreement and fostered numerous innovations to increase efficiency and quality at the Rouge.

The Rouge was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978. During the past 85 years, the plant has mass-produced millions of vehicles, including Fordson tractors, Model A sedans, V-8 engines, Willys jeeps, M4 tanks, Pratt & Whitney R-2800 aircraft engines, Fairlane coupes and Mustang sports cars.

Total Transformation

Now called the Ford Rouge Center, the 600-acre site remains Ford's largest single industrial complex. And a massive revitalization effort is under way to restore the industrial icon's glory.

Ford is investing $2 billion in the new Rouge Center. A state-of-the-art production facility called the Dearborn Truck Plant will open next month during Ford's centennial celebrations. Production of F-150 and Ranger pickups will ramp up later this year, with full production in 2004. The 1.3-million-square-foot flexible assembly plant will have the capability to interchange three vehicle platforms, producing nine different models in the same facility.

The new Rouge Center is the largest industrial redevelopment project in U.S. history and the flagship of Ford's vision of sustainable manufacturing for the future. The truck plant will include the world's largest living roof. Vegetation will store water and reduce storm water runoff while insulating the building. Ford also plans to open a new visitor's center so a new generation can get a first-hand glimpse of the vehicle assembly process.

"Integrated manufacturing wasn't invented at the Rouge," says Bill Ford, Henry's great grandson who currently serves as chairman and CEO of the automaker. "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.