Wayne— One hundred years after the introduction of the first moving automobile assembly line, Ford Motor Co. plans to make its vehicle manufacturing lines more flexible than ever.
The Dearborn automaker’s 37 assembly facilities will manufacture an average of four different vehicles each by 2017, Ford said Monday, which will allow it to increase global vehicle production to 8 million. Ford likely will manufacture 6 million vehicles this year and averages about 3¼ models or model variants per assembly facility.
“We’re accelerating our efforts to standardize production, make factories more flexible and introduce advanced technologies to efficiently build the best vehicles possible at the best value for our customers no matter where they live,” said John Fleming, Ford’s executive vice president of global manufacturing, speaking at an event at the automaker’s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne.
Fleming said Monday that Ford could manufacture as many as six vehicles per assembly factory, but that shuffling parts for six different automobiles into one facility would create some significant complexities.
Automakers throughout most of their history produced one vehicle per plant. When demand for that vehicle would fall, automakers were forced to lay off workers and take time to retool the plant for the next-generation vehicle or more recently, close the plant altogether.
But in today’s global vehicle market, matching production levels with consumer demand has prompted a shift toward more multi-vehicle facilities, most notably through flexible assembly lines, “one of the greatest leaps ... over the last 15 to 20 years,” said Mike Smith, a labor historian at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University.
For example, General Motors Co. spent hundreds of millions of dollars revamping its Spring Hill, Tenn., plant so it can manufacture multiple vehicles.
For Ford, the flexible manufacturing lines mean that the automaker will run three-shift operations at more than 30 of those assembly plants — representing about 90 percent of the overall facilities — which will boost the automaker’s global production capacity by 30 percent. Currently, 65 percent of Ford facilities run three shifts.
Ford will be able to make its assembly lines more flexible because of its vehicle platform reduction strategy. The automaker intends to have nine platforms for virtually all global vehicles by 2017; Ford currently has 15 platforms.
One example of Ford’s flexibility is its Michigan Assembly Plant. At the plant, the automaker makes five models with varying performance and efficiency qualities: A Focus compact with a naturally aspirated engine, an all-electric Focus, a hybrid and plug-in hybrid C-Max crossover, and a performance-oriented Focus ST. All are built on the same platform.
The production volume of each vehicle can be adjusted every couple of weeks depending on the current market demands. Volumes for all five of those vehicles are not currently significant enough to warrant their own dedicated assembly lines.