The quintessential operation for automotive production is assembly. While the production of everything from engines to stampings can be and are outsourced, like design (for the most part—nothing is exclusive in this industry), assembly is a definitional characteristic of an OEM.
The company that gave definition to the assembly line is the Ford Motor Company. As Henry Ford wanted to make cars (and trucks) affordable to the common individual he developed the means by which vehicles could be reliably and repeatedly produced, the assembly line. So when the Model T began production in 1908, it was on an assembly line.
So here is a look at some of the assembly lines in the history of Ford Motor Company. Times change. Practices change. But cars and trucks still need to be produced reliably and repeatedly so that they can be affordable.
The first assembly line was at the Ford Piquette Park Plant in Detroit. But it wasn’t a moving assembly line. The first Ford moving assembly line was installed at the Highland Park Plant, which opened in 1911. This shot is Highland Park, circa 1913.
Ford began to proliferate its assembly operations early. As shown here in Minnesota, in the Twin Cities. This had been a warehouse. Then, in 1912, Ford turned it into an assembly plant. No people are evident. But notice the consistency of the cars in process.
Through the years—since the Twin Cities warehouse plant gave way to a purpose-built facility in 1925—there have been a variety of vehicles built by Ford in Minnesota, including the LTD, Galaxie, Country Squire, Crown Victoria, and even the F-Series truck. It built the last U.S. Ford Ranger truck on December 16, 2011. Ranger production started in 1982 at Ford’s Louisville, KY, plant. During its run, more than 7 million Rangers were assembled. The last Ranger was fitted with the last version of the Ford “Cologne” V6 engine, which was in production for 49 years, and more than 25 million of them were built.
Ford began production of cars and trucks at a brand-new facility in East London, the Dagenham Plant, on October 1, 1931. Which, as you may recall, was during the Great Depression. A consequence of the economic conditions: during the last three months of 1931 Ford sold five cars in the U.K. Truck production was better. And things improved rather rapidly. By 1933, 6,900 people built 36,424 cars and 14,318 trucks and tractors in Dagenham. Shown here is the production of the Ford Prefect. Vehicle assembly was performed at Dagenham until February 2002. During its run, nearly 11-million vehicles were assembled there. (Ford continues to operate at Dagenham, using it for stamping operations, its Centre for Engineering and Manufacturing Excellence, and as its global center for diesel engine design and manufacture.)
Ford began producing vehicles in Chicago in 1914. It moved to the present site of manufacture in 1924. Certainly things didn’t remain static. For example, a $205-million investment was made in 1985 for the assembly of the original Taurus/Sable. It continues to be the home of the Taurus (and the Lincoln MKS). Here is the Chicago Plant in 1924.
Vehicle assembly in Chicago 1953. Notice a few things. One is how it is a worker-intensive assembly operation. Another is that that is a body being placed on a frame, not a unibody. And if you look closely, you can see that there is a pickup truck on the assembly line ahead of that sedan. While people probably didn’t even think about “flexible assembly” in 1953, they were doing it.
The assembly line in Chicago in 1986, producing the Ford Taurus, the car that redefined the fortunes of Ford. Arguably, the robot-intensive line then looks familiar to someone visiting almost any assembly plant today, in Chicago or elsewhere.
Although it was known as the “Wixom Assembly Plant” for most of its productive life, up to May 31, 2007, when it was closed after having produced 6.6-million vehicles during its 50 years of operation, when the plant in suburban Detroit launched on August 1, 1957, it was named the “Lincoln Assembly Plant.” The Lincoln Division was established by Ford in 1955, and ground was broken for the plant and what was to serve as the headquarters for the stand-alone division. The Lincoln Assembly Plant name lasted only until 1958. The final car to be built at Wixom was a 2007 White Chocolate Lincoln Town car. Shown here is Jennifer Dupuis, indicating the last chassis to run down the line at Wixom.
One door closes and another opens: On May 10, 2004, the Dearborn Assembly Plant, which opened in 1918, produced its last car, a red 2004 Mustang GT. But a few weeks earlier, on April 26, Ford opened the doors on the first assembly plant that it had built in the U.S. since 1987, when it built the AutoAlliance International plant in Flat Rock, MI, with Mazda (where production of the Mustang moved following the closing of Dearborn Assembly). The Dearborn Truck Plant is not only a model of flexible manufacturing capability and a model of environmentally oriented production, not only is it located on the legendary Ford Rouge complex grounds, and not only does it produce the perennially best-selling Ford F-150, but it is an assembly plant that is also a tourist attraction: self-guided tours for people depart regularly from The Henry Ford (thehenryford.org/rouge/index.aspx). Elevated walkways above final assembly allow people to see trucks being built ($15 for adults; $11 for kids).
In many ways, the Michigan Assembly Plant (MAP), opened in March 2011, is the future of assembly at Ford. The company spent approximately $550-million on the site that was originally the home of the 1957 Michigan Station Wagon Plant. It was renamed Michigan Truck in 1964 and through the years built F-Series and Broncos, Expeditions and Navigators. Today the 2.8-million-ft2 plant is capacitized to build conventional internal combustion-powered cars (Ford Focus), hybrids (C-MAX Hybrid), plug-in hybrid (C-MAX Energi), and electric vehicles (Focus Electric), which makes it the first assembly plant in the world to produce this variety of vehicles under one roof. Eighty-percent of the robots in the body shop can be reprogrammed to weld various-sized vehicles as needed to meet production demand, a first for Ford. There is an integrated stamping plant for the production of all large panels needed for the vehicle. It was the first U.S. plant to commercially deploy a three-wet paint application process (the primer, base and clear coats are applied, then baked once, not twice as is the norm (primer, bake; base and clear, bake again) thereby reducing the need for equipment, as well as reducing emissions. There is even a solar array that is used to produce energy, which the company estimates will save approximately $160,000 per year. Shown here is the assembly of the Focus Electric at MAP.