5/1/2002 | 6 MINUTE READ

Ford's Future Factory – NOW!

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The future of manufacturing at Ford is now on display at the new Dearborn Engine Plant. It's streamlined, flexible and poised to change the way the No. 2 automaker does business.


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Rarely are the past and future of an organization so starkly contrasted as they are at Ford's Dearborn Engine Plant. Visitors stepping through the doorway that leads from the 20-year-old part of the plant to the portion that just came on-line in spring 2001 can clearly see that they have left manufacturing's gritty 20th century and entered its freshly-painted, well-lit 21st. What is not as apparent is that Ford's new engine plant is a blueprint for the company's future manufacturing operations.


Carbon Copies

Dearborn Engine is not unique among Ford's plants and that is one of the things that makes it part of the wave of the future. Ford is pursuing standardized plant layout and equip-ment specification as a way to reduce costs, enhance flexibility and speed new model launches. It has built four essentially identical engine plants on three continents to make its new 1.8- to 2.3-liter I-4 engine family (which will replace up to eight Ford and Mazda four-cylinder engine families). Chihuahua, Mexico, was the first to begin production in the fall of 2000 and supplies the Mondeo in Europe. Dearborn followed in 2001, and currently makes the 2.3 L I-4 for the Ranger. Hiroshima, Japan, is just beginning production for the new Mazda 6 sedan, and Valencia, Spain, launches later this year to supply the Ford Fiesta.

These plants sprung from an idea that Ford developed for medium-volume production modules that could be replicated globally. The company's manufacturing engineers worked out the capacity range (from 310,000 units / year at Dearborn to 425,000 at Hiroshima) and operations mix that allows both quality integrity and the sharing of common processing technology among the plants.

Though there are slight line layout variations, practically everything else is a carbon copy–including processes, machine tools, control standards and even tool design and cutting speeds. "All of the equipment, including what looks like dedicated transfer equipment, is all modular and can be reconfigured very quickly without stopping production," says Kevin Bennett, director, manufacturing engineering, at Ford's powertrain operations. This gives Ford the flexibility to respond to market demands by building any one of the up to 100 potential configurations of the I-4 family with minimal disruption. Bennett says, "These plants have been launched much faster than ever before at Ford. And as we launch each future element we are greatly improving our speed and quality based on feedback and experience."


Getting & Using Information

Beyond their modular and interchangeable designs, Dearborn Engine and its sister facilities represent a new approach to manufacturing at Ford that blends high-tech elements with worker empowerment in an effort to create the optimum recipe for high-quality production.

A lot of this approach centers around the gathering and real-time analysis of a voluminous amount of information on the processing of each component of each engine. Measurements including the exact torque applied to a given bolt and the micron-level diameter of a cylinder bore are recorded at work stations and fed back to a central computer. Each critical machining or assembly process is monitored electronically through a system of in-process quality checks which ensure that parts remain within tolerance. And many of the operations have self-adjusting functions which compensate for deviations that could cause a part to go out of spec. For example, in the crankshaft machining operation a tool compensation program automatically adjusts for tool wear that could adversely affect the finished surface.

Dearborn Engine uses the precise information it records to help it build smoother-running engines. Pistons are "select-fit" to more closely conform to cylinder bore diameters and reduce the possibility of noise and vibration. Connecting rods (made of fracture-split sintered steel) are matched by weight to improve overall balance. And bearings are fitted with customized liners to reduce play. (Bennett points out that most of Ford's competitors simply grade bearings for the best fit, but at Dearborn Engine actual readings in microns are taken and then liners are tailored accordingly.)

All of the information gathered is recorded in a central file that is coded to the unique serial number for each engine. Ford calls this file the "birth history," and it is the most comprehensive and detailed record of a product's origins that the company has ever kept. Though every aspect of every engine has to be within set tolerances in order for it to be shipped, there is still an allowable variation, and the birth history records exactly where within that range each component falls. With this amount of precise data at their fingertips, Ford's engineers hope to be able to more quickly pinpoint and countermeasure problems that may arise in the field.

But Ford is aware that sophisticated technology is not a panacea. In fact, it has made efforts to keep the level of complex machinery to a minimum. Bennett says, "We're trying to deploy a level of technology that can be managed by the local teams. We've taken some of the automation out that would have to be managed by outside expert companies, so that we can give responsibility to the local teams for development and give them ownership."


Worker Empowerment

The idea of empowering workers to take more responsibility and make more decisions is a driving force behind Ford's new production strategy. Its old-style management system that relied on layers of supervisors to make decisions has been replaced by self-directed work teams of 8 to 12 hourly workers headed by a team leader, who is also hourly. Plant management encourages the teams to develop time- and cost-saving ideas by maintaining open lines of communication and by providing amenities like team meeting rooms and presentation support. Heather Robinson, I-4 engine area manager at Dearborn Engine, is convinced that the team empowerment approach has been the key to the smooth start-up of production at the plant. "Our team members know their processes better than anyone else, so they tell us where to put our resources to get the fastest results," she says, adding, "It's human nature that people want their own ideas to succeed and they will work harder to make sure they do."

A case in point involved a team in the engine assembly area responsible for installing small dress parts like sensors and plugs. When the team performed their tasks based on the plan devised by Ford's industrial engineers, their area became a production bottleneck. So, they developed a plan that moved some tools and line stops and re-balanced workloads. The result was a smoother work flow and the end of the bottleneck.


Defining Operations

Dearborn Engine machines cylinder blocks, cylinder heads, crankshafts, camshafts and connecting rods, and performs engine assembly and hot testing. This particular mix of operations was chosen not only to keep the plant in sync with its global counterparts, but to maximize its productivity by providing a clear focus. For example, a traditional approach would call for all machining operations to be performed at the engine plant, rather than at the casting facility. But the aluminum blocks that are supplied to Dearborn Engine from Ford's foundry in Cleveland have already undergone initial machining. Why? Because those operations often uncover problems like porosity that are related directly to the foundry. So by changing the division of responsibility, Dearborn Engine is less likely to waste time machining defective blocks, Ford saves the money it would have cost to ship said blocks, and the foundry gets immediate feedback on a quality problem.

The many ideas and approaches embodied by Dearborn Engine are the shape of things to come at Ford. In Bennett's words, "This is the beginning of a comprehensive manufacturing strategy." And if the company can replicate the initial success it has achieved then it stands to reap a significant benefit in increased efficiency and flexibility. 

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