Advancing Manufacturing Technology at Ford

Flexibility and standardization go hand-in-hand as Ford advances its manufacturing capabilities around the world.

Bruce Hettle is Ford director of manufacturing engineering, whose area of responsibility is with vehicle assembly systems. He’s been with the company for some 25 years. And he says, in effect, that Ford manufacturing operations are on a roll, as the company invests in huge changes around the world, working toward achieving a capability to make vehicles in a cost-effective manner that have the highest levels of qualities, to make them in a way that reflects environmental responsibility. “It’s an exciting time when you’re building eight plants in three years,” he says.
A prime example of how Ford is advancing the manufacturing process is the “3-Wet” paint process.
This process provides Ford with the means to reduce not only its costs, but the emissions—both volatile organic compounds and CO2—associated with painting. What’s more, it is done in a paint shop with a smaller footprint than conventional painting operations. It requires significantly less energy, and it is done faster, as well, as much as 25% faster than traditional vehicle painting.
Hettle says 3-Wet exemplifies Ford’s approach to advancing new manufacturing technology into its global facilities. The high-solids, solvent-borne paint process was first tried at the Ohio Assembly Plant in 2007, where it was used to paint 200 Econoline vehicles. These trucks were used by U-Haul, and logged an accumulated 400,000 miles in their first month in service. The paint held up well under those grueling conditions (if you’ve ever moved and rented a U-Haul, you know that your treatment of the vehicle tends to be a bit, umm . . . ).
Based on the success of the pilot, by 2009, when it was expanding its assembly plant near Chennai, India, it installed 3-Wet.
By the end of 2013, it will be using 3-Wet in 12 plants around the world, and will continue to deploy the process for the next few years. It is important to note that not only is it installing 3-Wet in greenfield, sites, but in brownfield facilities, as well.
Speaking to the latter—the existing facility—Hettle says, “It’s hard to justify changing a paint shop.” After all, once you have it—and realize that a paint shop is the biggest portion of an investment for an assembly plant (e.g., a new paint facility can cost as much as $200-million today)—you probably don’t want to change much if anything. Yet the 3-Wet process has proven to be sufficiently compelling for Ford to roll through its plant with it.
Briefly, the 3-Wet process goes like this: The body still undergoes chemical pretreatment. Then the primer is applied, and before it is dry, the base coat is applied. “We do have a little dwell time before we put the clear coat on,” Hettle admits, but adds, “We’re still working on it. But it is almost simultaneous, as well.” 
The robotic application of the paint is done with commercially available equipment. Hettle says that the integration and the processing know-how (e.g., tip speeds, flow rates, dwell times) are Ford’s competitive edge.
The resulting metrics are process time savings of 20 to 25%, a reduction of CO2 emissions of from 15 to 25%, and a reduction of VOCs of 10%. “It shrinks the paint shop down,” Hettle says, “which saves energy”—Hettle points out that for a given assembly plant, the paint shop accounts for more than 50% of the energy used on the site—“manpower, and capital investment. When you put all that together, we’ve been successful in demonstrating the business case.”
The approach that 3-Wet exemplifies is Ford’s focus on both standardization and global growth. “When we develop a best practice,” Hettle says, “and it is good for the environment and saves money, we can replicate it around the world, really quickly.”
“What you see in paint, is consistent in all departments,” he points out.
Hettle explains that the manufacturing strategy in place at Ford is based on a bill of design and a bill of process. “There is harmony between product design and the manufacturing sites. And we are developing standards around what we believe is best.” Those standards—such as how cars are built—are adhered to world-wide” If you go to Michigan Assembly and see the Focus body line and then go to the Chongqing 2 body line, you’ll see it is the same sequence of assembly, the same type of material handling robotics, the same touch points. The vehicles are built to the same Ford bill of design and bill of process for unitized cars.”
To craft those documents, there is close working collaboration between the product personnel and the manufacturing personnel so that there is agreement on things like locators and touch points.
Not only does this common practice allow the fast replication of systems around the world, but the bills of design and process also mean that it is not only possible but practical to launch new vehicles into a system while the existing products are being phased out without any downtime.
But what of the danger of standard practices leading to inertia, of continuing to do something one way because it is deemed to be the “standard”? How, say, would something like 3-Wet get deployed when a standard might have called for the tried-and-true method? “We don’t want to be stagnant,” Hettle says. “Standardization can lead to that if you’re not careful So we have really active innovation work streams, with global chief engineers responsible for that. We are constantly, with our suppliers, looking for new technologies and new best practices.”
With the new approach they’d perform a pilot at a particular site, then assuming it provides sufficient benefits, move it to the new standard for worldwide deployment.
One of the keen areas of focus at Ford in its assembly operations is flexibility. Hettle says that historically, the approach in both North America and Europe was to build plants that were capable of producing high volumes of a single model. Now, worldwide, they are looking to develop the capacity that allows them to not only run multiple models with a given facility, but to be able to adjust volumes as needed. “We have really clear standards around technology that provides flexibility for styling creativity, the ability to have mixed flexibility—to go up on one vehicle and down on another as the market swings—and to be able to introduce new models with our launch cadence without having to idle the plant,” Hettle says.
While Ford has long been using robotics in its assembly plants, Hettle explains that nowadays the focus is to use the equipment in ways that allows on-going flexibility within an operation without having to take the equipment down for reprogramming and retooling to accommodate different models.
The trim and final department of an assembly plant has long been comparatively labor intensive (compared, say, to the body line, where robots are abundant). Hettle thinks it will remain that way, with automation being used where it helps with safety, ergonomics, or quality. “Many of the components in trim and final require finesse, and we believe from a total cost and quality standpoint that the blend of people and machines is the right approach.”
One area where there is an increased amount of automation is at the “Customer Acceptance Line” (CAL), the final exit point of the assembly plant. Hettle says that they are using cameras and other sensors in conjunction with robots to perform a variety of checks and tests, from measuring the flushness of the sheet metal to assuring that the right badges for a particular vehicle are located in the appropriate spots to checking door efforts.
Not only does this help assure that the vehicle being checked is right, but by accumulating the data related to a consistent problem (e.g., a door margin out of spec), they are able to go upstream in the process to make adjustments to solve that problem.
Hettle thinks that CAL is absolutely essential for meeting the high quality standards that are now required. In fact, when asked what he believes is the most important emerging technology for vehicle build, “It would have to be the technology to validate quality. That will be the distinguishing factor in the end.”