Ford's Michigan eco car plant: one size fits all

22 July 2011
By Tony James
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Workers at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant

Workers at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant

Workers at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant

Workers at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant

Workers at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant

Workers at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant

Workers at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant

Workers at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant

Flexibility will provide the competitive edge in the crucial next decade of car manufacture and innovations at Ford’s newly revamped Michigan Assembly Plant put the factory top of its class. E&T pays it a visit

It is not just on the garage forecourts that the automotive sector is changing, with hybrids and electric vehicles sitting alongside the traditional petrol driven machines. Assembly plants around the globe are playing host to carmakers’ preparations to manufacture this new breed of automobile.

One such transformation has occurred at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant (MAP) located in Wayne, Michigan. The 140-acre site has been manufacturing Ford cars since the late 1950s; first, station wagon bodies through Broncos, F-Series, Expeditions and, latterly, the Lincoln Navigator.

But now, after a £340m facelift, the environmentally-friendly plant that features a flexible manufacturing capability will manufacture the new Ford Focus, and later this year the all-electric Focus.

“It’s amazing if you stop to think that a little more than 18 months ago we were just getting started on our transformation of this facility,” Jim Tetreault, Ford’s vice president of North America Manufacturing, says. “We were just beginning to tear out the old Michigan Truck equipment that was no longer in use, and the thought of running the new C-1 based compact cars down the assembly line seemed light years away.

“All told, we’ve invested $550m to transform the body shop, renovate the paint shop and install new tooling and equipment in the final assembly area at MAP – and you can see the result of this investment. Thanks largely to the work we’ve done in the body shop, I’m proud to say that MAP is currently Ford’s most flexible facility. Today, we can build up to six different vehicles on two different platforms with little to no downtime for tooling changeover.

“And the story for this plant is only just beginning, because we have also announced another $450m investment in Michigan for the development and production of full battery electric, hybrid electric and plug-in-hybrid electric vehicles,” Tetreault adds. “Later this year, we’ll launch the Battery Electric Focus. And next year, we’ll launch the production versions of the C-MAX hybrid electric and C-MAX Energi plug-in hybrid electric. This is the location where Ford’s ‘Power of Choice’ vision comes alive.

“By 2012, once all of these products are launched, MAP will be the world’s first assembly facility to build this full spectrum of vehicles on the same assembly line.”

Reprogrammable tooling

MAP is Ford’s most flexible plant, thanks to reprogrammable tooling in the body shop, standardised equipment in the paint shop and a common-build sequence in final assembly. This flexibility allows the Ford team to produce multiple models on the same assembly line.

In its flexible body shop, at least 80 per cent of MAP’s robotic equipment can be programmed to weld various-sized vehicles, first for Ford. And, MAP’s integrated stamping facility allows the stamping and welding of all large sheet-metal parts on site, ensuring maximum quality and minimum overhead.

“If the last few years have taught us anything, it is that customer wants and needs can change quickly – much more quickly than we have been equipped to respond to efficiently in the past,” Tetreault, says. “At Michigan Assembly, we will achieve a level of flexibility we don’t have in any other plant around the world, which will allow us to meet shifting consumer preferences in real time.”

The most significant step toward improving flexibility is taking place in its body shop. The company’s manufacturing operations worked closely with its product development teams to construct product-platform designs that enable use of the programmable equipment to produce multiple variations of products in one facility.

Body construction has long been a limiting factor in any plant’s flexibility. Under traditional systems, unique tooling is required to weld each individual vehicle body style. Running a different body style down the same line traditionally requires considerable additional downtime for physical tooling changeover.

In recent years, Ford has made important strides in assembly plant body shop flexibility in plants such as Chicago Assembly, Oakville Assembly and Kentucky Truck, where significantly different products are built on a common system.

However, Ford’s latest strategy reduces dramatically physical tooling constraints through use of the programmable tooling technologies that eliminate the need to replace model-specific tooling for locating, clamping and welding. This saves time and limits disruption to the plant’s operations.

“Manufacturing flexibility provides a competitive advantage, so it is essential that we continue to improve our flexible capability,” Tetreault continues. “The automakers with true flexibility will be positioned to compete more effectively in the global marketplace. That’s why continuous improvement in flexibility is our priority.”

Tools and paints

The plant will also employ an efficient, synchronous material flow, where parts and other components will move in kits to each operator, providing employees with the tools they need in the sequence they need them.

In the paint shop the plant is the first US plant to commercially use a three-wet-paint application that will save about £2m in production in natural gas and electricity. “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,” John Nowak, environmental engineer, says. “The three-wet process allows us to put on primer, base and clear, and bake it only once. We save all the electricity from the blowers that run the booths and the ovens, plus all the natural gas from heating the air and the ovens.”

According to Ford’s official figures, differences in technique – including robotic processing, elimination of equipment and associated pollutants, and increased line speed – mean the three-wet paint process produces 6,000 fewer metric tonnes CO2 emissions per year compared to waterborne systems and 8,000 fewer metric tonnes CO2 emissions per year compared to conventional high-solvent-borne systems. There also is a Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) emissions savings of 5 per cent related to processing.

Solar power

The plant is also pioneering the use of renewable energy in automotive manufacturing. The solar energy system installed at the plant will serve as a pilot alternative energy project to be evaluated for possible use at other Ford manufacturing facilities in the future. A secondary, smaller solar energy system will be integrated to power lighting systems at the plant.

“This solar energy system allows us to test the viability of alternative energy to supply power for our manufacturing facilities around the world,” Tetreault says. “It serves as a significant initiative within our corporate emphasis on sustainability.”

Ford collaborated with DTE Energy to install the 500KW solar photovoltaic panel system at the plant. The system will be integrated with a 750KW energy storage facility that can store two million watt-hours of energy using batteries. The project will also include a 50KW-hour facility to demonstrate the potential reuse of vehicle electric batteries for stationary energy storage. Xtreme Power of Austin, Texas, is supplying its Dynamic Power Resource on-site energy storage and power management system.

Ford will install ten electric vehicle charging stations at Michigan Assembly to demonstrate advanced battery charging technologies for vehicles using renewable energy and other smart-grid advances. The stations will be used to recharge the electric switcher trucks that transport vehicle parts between adjacent buildings at the manufacturing site. Part of the pilot project involves a demonstration of the possibility for using electrified vehicle batteries as stationary power storage devices after their useful life as vehicle power sources is over.

The plant will operate on a blend of renewable and conventional electricity. Renewable energy collected by the solar system will go into the plant’s electrical distribution system to help provide power. When the plant is inactive, the collected solar energy will go into the Dynamic Power Resource storage system for later use, providing power during periods of insufficient or inconsistent sunlight.

Michigan Assembly’s energy storage system will be able to recharge from the smart grid during off-peak hours when energy is available at a lower cost. This in turn can provide inexpensive power during peak operating hours when the cost per kilowatt-hour is usually higher, and can help reduce peak demand on the grid.

“The MAP solar array builds on Ford’s other renewable energy initiatives including geothermal energy in Ohio and wind energy in the UK and Belgium,” says Donna Inch, chairman and CEO, Ford Land. “This is one more step in our journey toward sustainability.”

In addition to this, 50 per cent of the parts arriving for the all-new Focus that come from Europe, packed in cardboard, are carefully collected, sorted and recycled, as is the bubble wrap, the Styrofoam and water bottles used by employees. Even the temporary wooden partitions that were put up as the plant was revamped and remodelled were donated to the local Habitat for Humanity.

But equipment isn’t all it takes for a plant transformation to occur. Work force training is equally important. Doug Mertz, organisation development manager at MAP, worked with the team to develop training that would focus on the plant’s operating principles – safety, quality and flexible manufacturing – with high priority placed on respect for people, product and processes.

Group leaders from Wayne Assembly Plant participated in an intense, three-week quality education, which included pre-builds of the new Focus and in-depth training on safety, ergonomics and work-station design. In addition, group leaders were trained on ‘soft skills’, such as developmental leadership, personality preferences and their impact on behaviour, conflict resolution, change management, techniques for teaching others, and other skills to aid in situations specific to their base departments.

“Since the group leaders would be training the base operators when they came to the MAP site, we wanted them to understand not only the implication of performing their job correctly, but also the impact that performing the job incorrectly would have,” said Mertz.

As the full MAP salaried and hourly workforce arrived at Michigan Assembly Plant, operating patterns helped to 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 standardisation of work practices. Shifts continued to overlap so line employees could work together and minimise variability on job performance.

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Michigan Assembly Plant Timeline

1957 Plant opens

A 760 per cent rise in Mercury station wagon sales from 1947 to 1956 necessitated establishment of the Michigan Station Wagon Plant.

1964 Truck production

The first truck, a Ford F-100, rolls off the line of the newly renamed Michigan Truck Plant.

1965 Historic milestones

Two milestones are reached: The 100,000th truck rolls off the line at the plant, and the plant produces its first Ford Bronco.

1966 Bronco boom

Bronco is the star of the production lineup. Three years later, two additions to the plant increase its overall capacity. Bronco production ends in 1996.

1974 Plant expansion

Michigan Truck Plant gets an 18,000ft2 expansion as part of Ford’s worldwide record capital expenditure program totaling $1.1bn

1997 SUV production

The plant begins producing the Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator, which continues through November 2008. A new flexible body shop is added to the plant in 2005.

2011 Flexible manufacturing

Renamed Michigan Assembly Plant, the facility undergoes an extensive physical transformation to prepare for production of the all-new Focus and companion Focus Electric. Ford’s electrification strategy at Michigan Assembly Plant includes launching two additional electrified vehicles – a hybrid electric and plug-in hybrid electric – in 2012.

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