Advanced Manufacturing at Ford

Gary S. Vasilash

Virtual engineering and additive processes are having an effect at how Ford builds its cars and trucks, not only in the U.S., but around the world. Here’s a look.


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•    The future of manufacturing at Ford is going to be different.
•    The future of manufacturing at Ford is going to be similar.

Which of those two propositions is the right one?


At least that’s the sense of things based on a conversation with Janice Goral, a manager of Manufacturing Engineering in the Ford Vehicle Operations organization; she’s responsible for Production Preparation Engineering, which encompasses Virtual Engineering, Ergonomics and Industrial Engineering. If we can put Ford production operations into two large categories—Powertrain and Assembly—Goral’s focus is on Assembly.

Arguably, one part of the future of manufacturing at Ford began some 20 years ago when, Goral says, they began piloting virtual engineering operations. “It began in earnest in 2002 when the Virtual Engineering department was established. We’ve embedded it into our culture for about 12 years now.”

It is the use of computer-aided tools that Goral says has had a signal effect on manufacturing engineering activities at Ford. “Before, we had to wait to have prototype parts in hand to have the first opportunity to identify any issues. With computer models of our cars and trucks and the ability to put vehicles together virtually, we can identify issues early, resolve them with the product engineers, then validate them with the computer model without the sunk costs associated with having a physical part in our hands.”

Goral adds, “We use computer modeling to validate the tools and the equipment and the processes we’re designing as manufacturing engineers.” So the use of digital tools is a great benefit to advancing manufacturing at Ford.

She points out, however, that through the use of 3D printing, they are getting prototype parts more quickly and at less cost than has historically been the case, so there are still physical models being created.

An example from the Powertrain side of the business: to create a prototype intake manifold would take four months and $500,000 using traditional methods. With 3D printing, it takes four days and $3,000.

Goral thinks that 3D printing has future applicability beyond just prototypes: “I see great potential for it, especially for low-volume production, for things that can personalize the vehicle. It gives us a lot of flexibility, efficiency, and potential for savings.”

One of the widely known changes that is occurring at Ford is the extensive use of aluminum for the 2015 F-150. This isn’t uncharted territory by any means, as Ford has been using aluminum for closure panels, chassis components and powertrain for several years. But what is different is the extent to which the nonferrous material is being used, which is having an effect on how panels are being processed in Ford assembly plants.

Goral says that they’re deploying more adhesive, rivets, and laser welding. But she says that when they did their developments for that truck, as well as other vehicles, an objective of the virtual engineering is working “within the existing footprint and facilities that we have.” She explains that they want to make sure that as they launch products, they want to make it as easy for the operators to transition to the new processes as possible to help assure that the launch will be smooth. In other words, they’re working to assure that the workstations are familiar, not something entirely different.

One of the technologies that Goral believes holds great potential for Ford is a technology that they worked on with Siemens PLM ( called “IntoSite,” which she says is based on Google Earth technology, and which they are piloting in plants. Essentially, the idea is that Ford (like other companies) has facilities located in various countries, some of which make the same product (e.g., the Focus is built in the U.S., Europe and China). So they’re looking for ways to both standardize processes, as well as make improvements to those processes. IntoSite, an application within the Siemens Tecnomatix portfolio, is cloud-based and accessible through the web. As is the case with using Google Maps for recreational activities, there is the ability to put “pins” on the map, but instead of a restaurant, this might be on a workstation. Then, documents, videos and images can be attached to the pins, all of which are accessible via a private virtual space. Goral points out that through the use of this technology, there can be ideas shared and troubleshooting performed by people from around the globe without the hassles and time-consumption associated with air travel. What’s more, she points out that there is already general familiarity with Google Earth, so the learning curve is short.

Which brings us back to the start: the future of manufacturing at Ford is going to be different . . . but it will have sufficient similarities, in some cases, with what has gone before. Which is, arguably, the best of both worlds.