Ford’s Electric Drive Reinvents Historic Michigan Factory

Construction crews are once again rebuilding Ford’s century-old industrial complex, this time returning to Dearborn for a post-oil era that’s finally starting to look possible.

The production operation’s primary mission in recent times has been assembling the best-selling gasoline-powered F-150.

The truck factory produces a new truck every 53 seconds in a well-oiled process that will continue for the foreseeable future.

But in September 2020, Ford broke ground on a smaller facility on neighboring land and tasked the new operation with building the electric battery for the internal combustion engine (ICE) F-150.

The F-150 Lightning is part of a growing fleet of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) hitting the road from established automakers and startups.

Last week at the Detroit Auto Show, President Joe Biden announced that “the great American Road Trip will be fully electrified.”

After racking up nearly 200,000 reservations for the Lightning, Ford has announced they will quadruple production over the next year.

Will there be a tipping point where the Lightning can pass the ICE model? That’s the question on the minds of officials at Ford and rival Detroit automakers, which have invested billions of dollars in BEVs while still building millions of ICE vehicles.

“The industry is changing so rapidly that I don’t think anyone has a good prediction of where it’s going to go,” Ford’s Chris Skaggs told AFP.

“But we’re reacting and getting the resources we need to build and scale the batteries so we can meet the demand no matter what,” said Skaggs, a veteran Ford operations manager who led the BEV plant expansion.

“I’ve been doing this for 29 years and I thought I’d retire before I got to this point.”

– A storied history –

Lightning marks the latest reinvention of the Dearborn Rouge industrial complex near the Rouge River, south of Detroit.

The Rouge factory was built between 1917 and 1928 and was originally planned to cover all components of automobile production, including tire manufacturing, car assembly, steelmaking, and engine manufacturing.

Peak employment exceeded 100,000 in the 1930s, a decade that also saw visits by artist Diego Rivera for his famous frescoes of auto workers.

The complex was involved in building fighter jet engines for the Allies in World War II before assembling popular Ford vehicles such as the Thunderbird and Mustang, which were released in the 1960s and are now assembled at another Michigan plant.

The rouge area – the long emblems of the moving assembly line that changed production history – began to look like a white elephant as Ford was fixed in the late 20th century and pollution turned it into a brown area.

But William Clay Ford Jr., Henry Ford’s great-grandson, refused to close it, authorizing a $2 billion upgrade soon after becoming chairman in 1999.

The Dearborn Truck plant opened in 2004 after extensive environmental cleanup and the installation of a “living roof” to make heating and cooling more efficient.

– “Flex” ability –

Describing the Rouge as “our heritage,” the young Ford internally backed off on the Dearborn investment, which coincided with a financially difficult period.

But you’d be hard-pressed to find fault with the staying power of the F-150, the best-selling car in the U.S. for four decades.

The Dearborn truck assembly plant, which employs 4,500 people, operates three shifts around the clock.

The car assembly process begins when aluminum coils are stamped into panels in place. The panels are assembled in the body shop and then painted before going to the assembly line.

The truck then passes through hundreds of workstations where the engine and other components are installed and tested, including wheel and headlight alignment, camera-based inspections and an electronic computer, before being shipped to the customer.

Ford does not release daily production numbers, but each car is assembled hours after it arrives at the plant, Skaggs said.

Unlike a functioning ICE truck plant, the BEV plant operates with a modest hum, a quality partly due to the company’s focus on ergonomics.

The BEV’s assembly process is also organized around production lines, but there are still fewer workstations in an operation in preparation for larger jobs. About 500 employees are currently working at the Rouge Electric Vehicle Center.

The expansion will double the size of the BEV factory and add more employees and workstations, bringing production to 150,000 by next fall, Skaggs said.

But the extra output will be “flexible,” Skaggs said, able to be used for either ICE or BEV depending on demand.

“If we don’t call it right, we can build more ICE units… or if BEV really takes off like we all expect, we can expand it.”

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