Ford to Build Next Gen Gas, Hybrid, and Plug-In Vehicles on a Single Line

Ford’s new Wayne, Michigan plant is an exercise in smart production.

Henry Ford, who founded Ford Motor Company in 1903 was one of the fathers of the assembly line, which to this day remains one of the most popular mass production techniques internationally. Today, Ford Motor Company has grown and changed greatly, but its spirit of innovation when it comes to production is certainly alive and well.

On Tuesday, we toured Ford Motor Company’s retooled Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Michigan and received a taste of the improvements Ford has been cooking up. What is clear is that the company has arrived at a production process that should make it very competitive in the near-term.

A Portfolio of Electric

Much of Ford’s presentations focused on the new global Ford Focus, which goes on sale early next year. A battery electric vehicle (commonly known as an “all electric”) variant, dubbed the Focus Electric, will launch later in 2011. The Focus will come in four-door and five-door version and was shown off at auto shows this year.

Ford also is cooking up a next generation hybrid and plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). We can’t reveal the details of this to you now, but these vehicles will be announced in January at the 2011 North American International Auto Show.

For more information on these upcoming vehicles, check out the September 2010 interviewwe did with Sherif Marakby, Director of Ford’s Hybrid and Electric vehicles program.

We spoke briefly with Ford’s CEO Alan Mulally about his company’s electrification efforts. Given that Ford’s BEV and PHEV competitors — the 2011 Nissan Leaf EV and 2011 Chevy Volt, respectively — were getting a year head start, we asked Mr. Mulally if he felt extra pressure by launching later and trying to hit a moving target.

He commented, “We don’t feel any pressure because the Ford plan is very different.”

He says that Ford’s plan is built on efficient production, rather any one single vehicle. Using that model, electric options will eventually be able to be affordably offered with nearly every vehicle, much like Ford’s nearer-term gameplan for EcoBoost.

We also asked him whether Ford would release a luxury BEV or PHEV to compete with Tesla Motor Company’s upcoming Model S. Mr. Mulally didn’t hint at any specific plans in the luxury segment, merely stating, “You’ll see more and more hybrids across our entire product line [including the luxury segment].”

Another reporter asked Mr. Mulally a question about whether Ford could remain profitable if President Obama’s long term vision of 65 mpg average fuel economy is mandated by law. Mr. Mulally responded, “We will continue to work with regulators to make sure standards set with CAFE make sense for consumers and make sense economically.”

A Modern Auto Plant

The Michigan Assembly Plant is not a new facility. But the former large SUV plant looks and feels like a new plant thanks to a $550M USD retooling and renovation.

The plant will produce multiple different vehicles on a single line – a Ford Focus Electric may roll down the line followed by one of the new hybrids in 2012 [a different model], followed by a gas-engine MPV. Yet, despite the vehicle mixing, Ford employees tell us the line is targeting a production rate of 1 vehicle per minute.

Much of the error-prone jobs at the plant have been put in the hands of robots, with humans filling the jobs they’re naturally more efficient at.

For example, Ford has created a new three layer (primer, color coat, and clear coat) organic solvent-based, all-wet paint process that accomplishes all the painting within a single booth. That process is assisted by 66 robots. The result is a beautiful coat. And thanks to reducing the number of individual wet processes from three to one, Ford brings its volatile organic-compounds (VOCs) and CO2 emissions in line with its competitors, who have switched to water-based paints.

More robots come into play during the welding process. They clamp the frame of the vehicle using numerous small crab-like robotic hands. The sheet metal is then welded to the frame in a “sub-millimeter precision” process. And thanks to the robotic grippers, the grip positions can be automatically adjusted to accommodate the wide variety of vehicles that will be simultaneously rolling down the line.

While other manufacturers produce multiple vehicles on a single line as well, Ford suggested that many use different specialized welding stations or work areas. Ford’s line is a true single line, in that all process on all vehicles are performed on a single moving line.

Among the renovations Ford has performed, it has largely switched from air tools to electric ones. The new electric tools offer better feedback to tell workers when bolts are sufficiently tightened, etc.

At the new-look plant, every one of the 900 work stations is standardized to improve efficiency. Components to be added to the vehicle are brought to stations in kits, which are checked to make sure they’re correct for the vehicle via a bar-coding process. The kits are delivered by fork lifts that are mostly electric-powered (there are a “few” propane ones remaining). All of the fork-lifts are zero-clearance to prevent accidents due to viewing difficulties.

The plants platforms allow workers to stand on them when they’re working on a specific assembly step, rather than forcing them to walk with the vehicle, as they had to in the past. And the vehicles are placed on platforms that lift the vehicle to a proper height to easily perform whatever assembly step they’re on. For example, the vehicle would be lifted high for work on the wheel wells, but would remain at base level for work on the roof.

One of the big things that Ford emphasized during the tour was its focus on quality testing. J.D. Power and Associates named Ford the best mass-market brand in terms of initial vehicle quality, beating the likes of Honda, Toyota, and GM. Ford is eager to hang on to that top spot by painstakingly testing its product.

Every day Ford picks five vehicles (of mixed model types) off the assembly lines and performs air leakage testing on them. Ford’s current generation targets a leakage rate of 61 L/s, while next year’s models have a target of 59 L/s. Some competitors have leakage rates of 70-80 L/s.

Ultimately leakage translates into driving noise. Lack of leakage ensures a quiet cabin while driving. Ford’s experts literally take stethoscopes while the vehicle is being pumped full of air (positive pressure) or having air pumped out (negative pressure) to check for weak spots. Weak spots in air flow are flagged and become a quality focus on the plant floor.

Another important test for Ford’s quality is water-testing. Every vehicle on the line rolls through a basic soak test and is then checked by workers to make sure no water entered the vehicle. Every day an additional 10 vehicles are subjected to a more intense 20 minute water torture test, which simulates heavy rain conditions. The test booth uses recycled water and helps give Ford confidence that there is no leakage issues in its productions process.

Yet another critical test is the electronics test for shifting, braking, and onboard systems. That test is performed at a single testing station. Ford employees tell us that it puts less than a quarter mile on the cars, but it thoroughly ensures that they’re road ready.

The final step of the testing process is to roll the vehicles out under high intensity lights as experts scour their exterior and interior, looking for any defects. Once the vehicles undergo this final check, Ford’s staff tells us that they will be confident that they are delivering a flawless product to the customer.

Green Energy and Additional Details

When production starts, the plant will employ approximately 3,200 Michigan workers and covers 1.2 million square feet (the size of 22 football fields).

As we previously reported, Detroit Edison and Xtreme Power are teaming up to install a 500-kilowatt solar photovoltaic panel system, which will be integrated into a larger 750-kilowatt energy storage facility, which can store 2 million watt-hours of energy in its batteries.

Ford also has plans to include yet another smaller solar installation. That system will power the plant’s high output lighting. Together, Ford hopes to realize a combined energy savings of $160,000 per year.

Final Thoughts

Ford isn’t the only one adopting these kinds of technologies. But from what we’ve seen they’re a bit more ambitious than their American competitors in terms of production technology. Their ability to produce so many different kinds of vehicles on a single line, with so many different build options (four-door, five-door, etc.), and so many engine/electrification options (EcoBoost, hybrid, PHEV, BEV) is quite impressive.

It will take a couple of years before the plant is producing its full planned lineup (which, as we mentioned should be announced at NAIAS). When it reaches that point the hard work should finally begin to pay off in full.

Ford should be able to both make a larger profit and deliver vehicles at a lower price to consumers (or offer consumers a vehicle packed with more technology than similarly priced competitors’ vehicles). And its production process should make it much more affordable for the company to meet fuel economy regulator’s standards, seeing as virtually any model can be electrified via a modified top-hat.

We came away from Ford’s plant tour and NAIAS preview quite impressed. We promise you that there’s some exciting announcements in store for NAIAS, and we look forward to offering you information on those developments.

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