Ford’s next generation flexible assembly promises to save up to $2.0 billion over the next decade through common process, procedures, layouts, and equipment. And while the sheer variety of vehicles have increased, it’s not the first time Ford has followed this path.
What if every engine plant looked the same? What if the machines were flexible, from the same manufacturer, and placed in the same order around the building? What if all of the processes were the same? And what if you applied these same principles to your body and assembly operations, no matter whether the vehicles being built were unit body or body-on-frame, front-drive, rear-drive, or all-wheel-drive? What would you call such a thing? If you are Ford, you call it your “next generation flexible assembly process.”
As Ford moves ahead with this program, a typical Ford powertrain facility will still have the capacity to build 650,000 engines, but now it will be spread over two lines, not one. When a new design is introduced, one line will continue to build the current design, while the other is reformatted (most of the changes are expected to be software modifications) to produce the new part. So launching a new engine, or a derivative of a current powerplant, won’t require lots of downtime, lost capacity, or a non-standardized launch process.
This will be supported by a consolidation of global engine architectures. The modular engine family (4.6 L V8, 5.4 L V10) will be produced in two-valve, three-valve, and four-valve per cylinder variants, as well as single- and dual-sparkplug per cylinder versions for both car and truck applications. Ford’s Global Inline 4-cylinder engine family, just launched in the Mazda 6, has 100 possible variations, and consolidates eight engine families into one. And the list goes on.
Says Kevin Bennett, director of Manufacturing Engineering, Ford Powertrain Operations, “Our engine plants will be able to support each other during the launch process through the cross-shipping of parts, and support the training process as each introduces improvements to the production process.” On the cylinder head line in Ford’s Windsor, Ontario, engine plant, for example, there are four modules with up to 48 Cross-Huller CNC machines in each doing “parallel processing” (parts are shuttled between one of six machines performing the same operation, which allows a machine to be taken out of service without adversely affecting uptime), and parts are untouched by human hands from the time they are loaded into the cell to the time the machining is completed.
When the Cleveland Engine Plant No. 1 comes on line in 2004, it will be Ford’s first fully flexible engine plant. In addition to the equipment and procedures found on the Windsor head line, each block at the Cleveland plant will be loaded onto a pallet that can handle anything from an inline three-cylinder to a V12, and looks like a hobbyist’s engine stand. All sides of the engine are accessible to the operator, and an adapter plate at the rear block face takes all of the clamping forces. This relieves the stress on the block during the machining and assembly processes.
Production of the 2004 F-Series at the company’s new Rouge assembly complex will kick-off Ford’s flexible assembly process. By the end of the decade, the company expects 75% of its vehicle assembly operations to be changed over to the flexible process. In those plants, assembly areas will have the same footprint containing standardized modules built from a select group of common components. “The only things we will need to change to launch a new product,” says Bill Russo, director, Advanced and Manufacturing Engineering, “will be product-specific tooling on the vertical trays, horizontal gates, or robot arms–and the software programming.”
Each flexible assembly plant can produce two different platforms, each with four variations. So not only can Ford produce derivatives off a common platform (think Freestyle SUV and Five Hundred sedan), but derivatives off unique platforms. “We’re not limited to having unit body vehicles in one plant, and body-on-frame in another,” says Roman Krygier, group vice president, Ford Global Manufacturing and Quality. “In the same plant we will be able to run a unit body and its derivatives down one line, and a body-on-frame and its derivative down another, because we will have the same standardized modules and assembly sequence for each.” The lines also can be adapted to handle any drive configuration available.
The assembly process is divided among 16 standardized modules, each with a specific function, and these are combined to create a sub-system. In this context, one cell may apply adhesives, two more would comprise different tool tray types, three others would handle all the welding, and the pallet cell would take the body from station to station. “In total,” says Russo, “there are 300 components–standardized across all of our plants globally–that are needed to create the 16 cells, and these are combined to make up the entire body shop.” The standardization also will extend to final assembly, as well as to the paint shops, where a wide variety of vehicle sizes will be accommodated. The savings from this new-found flexibility over the next decade are expected to be in the $1.5- to $2.0-billion range.