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US Manufacturing Shines: Ford Rouge Factory Tour

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at the TTI/Vanguard Making Things conference in Detroit. As part of the event, we were taken on a tour of the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn and were able to see the F-150 final assembly line. It was fascinating to witness up close the structure of US high volume auto manufacturing. Some observations:

  • The line was staffed by workers arranged in groups of 8-12 people. At the start of each day they huddle and determine who will be doing which task that day on the line. Some folks prefer to always perform the same task while the majority will do one job in the morning and then switch to another in the afternoon.
  • Each team had a leader who was trained in all of the jobs with the ability to jump in at the ready if a worker needed a break.
  • The workers performed multiple jobs rather than just any single task - much more like a cell line set on top of a conventional conveyer.
  • There were several methods setup to gather feedback from the workers on how to improve the process.
  • Using their in-house IT system, all WIP and quality was closely monitored. Key steps, such as installing the seatbelt bolts at the proper torque, were recorded and tied to the vehicle.
  • The workers had the ability to note any areas of concern, which were linked to the vehicle and then checked out before final approval.
  • The process was very clean and orderly.
  • Great care was paid to ergonomics. Ford recognized that this has a huge ROI on quality.
  • Ford has made an impressive investment in IT. The cabs and beds are painted at the same time, and then separated to go thru final assembly. Because there is more work required on the cab, there are five cab lines and one bed line. After each is assembled, they meet up again seamlessly and are assembled on the chassis. Each truck can be customized with a different interior, etc., all of which is tracked in the system, and drives the appropriate WIP to support the build.
  • The internal factory software takes account of how long each step takes and then schedules the workflow accordingly. For example, gluing on the sunroof (done by robots*) takes extra time. As a result, the software knows not to schedule more than two trucks with sunroofs back to back.

To sum up, it was an awesome experience and incredibly inspiring to see US manufacturing at it’s best.

* As a rough estimate, the ratio of humans to robots on the final assembly line was approximately 500:1.  The tasks required significant dexterity for relatively lightweight parts (ex: installing trim on the inside of the cabs). I would expect to see a much higher degree of automation on the body panel assembly lines.

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