2/16/2011 | 4 MINUTE READ

Ford Is Fully Flexed In Flat Rock

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Adding 2005 Mustang production to Auto Alliance International's Flat Rock facility took five years, lots of planning, and the belief that rear- and front-drive vehicles could be produced together on the same line


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The Auto Alliance International (AAI) plant in Flat Rock, MI, is the new home of Ford's rear-drive Mustang. It's also the home of the front-drive Mazda6. This isn't the first time Mustang has been slated for production at AAI's Flat Rock facility. In the 1980s, Ford planned to produce a front-drive Mustang replacement off Mazda's 626/MX-6 platform, but public outcry soon put an end to the plan. The "Mustang III" as it was to be called morphed into the Ford Probe. It and its successors are now long gone, while the Mustang has survived long enough to finally come to the Flat Rock facility.

Planning for adding the 2005 Mustang to this plant began in April 1999," says Bill Cumbaa, general manager of the AAI facility. The decision to add Mustang production to AAI forced Mazda and Ford to reevaluate their plans, and come up with a solution that suited both their needs. Flexible tooling was specified, and current equipment that could be refurbished to meet this goal was retained. That which could not was replaced. "There's very little in the plant that hasn't been refurbished, moved, or replaced in order to get ready for the Mustang," says plant manager Michael Boneham.

Though Ford phased-out its production at the plant in 2002, Mazda introduced the J56 project (Mazda6) to the AAI plant in 2002 as a 2003 model. It was readily apparent that basic functions like the build sequence could not be altered if production was to continue unabated, and that any changes made for the Mustang would have to work for both. (It didn't hurt that Ford standardized its body-build process based on the Mazda system at this time.) A further complication was the fact that Mazda moved from producing just the Mazda6 sedan to adding five-door and wagon models, as Ford was looking to add the Mustang in Coupe, Convertible and Cobra forms on the same line. Two cars, six basic variants, new machinery, and a move from one shift to two. It wasn't an easy task.

"We also added 1,400 new workers, many of whom came to us from other Ford facilities like the Edison, New Jersey, plant where the Ranger was made," says Boneham. A $5-million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor was used to support programs to teach the recruits about robotics, computers and advanced manufacturing methods. This supplemented the $25-million Ford invested in the hiring and training process. Jobs at AAI are classified either "A" (the toughest). "B," or "C," and each new worker goes through a minimum two weeks training. In addition, those who switched jobs within the plant were re-trained, a process that affected approximately 35% of employees working each shift. At AAI there are 307 Six Sigma green belts and 12 black belts, in addition to seven people assigned to root cause analysis.

"The new body shop has 380 robots making about 2,600 welds per car," says Boneham, and we've added 40 new stamping dies to produce 52 new parts for the Mustang." The hood is the only closure panel not made at Flat Rock. Ford's Woodhaven, MI, stamping plant produces the aluminum hood, then ships it less than 10 minutes down the road to the AAI facility. The AAI stamping unit has moved to three full shifts with the addition of Mustang production. "Die changes," says Cumbaa, "average 11 minutes."

"We can shift production between the two welding lines if demand favors one vehicle over another," says Boneham. Reprogramming is all that it takes to allow batches of Mustangs down the Mazda weld line. Once the system is told of the change, welding proceeds accordingly. The same could be done on the Mustang line, though nobody expects that to happen anytime soon. "We have capacity to build up to 290,000 vehicles at this plant," says Ford COO Jim Padilla, "and expect that to be split 1/3 Mazda6, 2/3 Mustang."

Sharing extends to the paint process where Ford and Mazda each have five unique colors, and five shared colors. The process has room for five additional colors, which are expected to be used for the SVT Mustang Cobra and Mazdaspeed Mazda6 variants. Paint is applied by 68 new Fanuc P500 robots. The two platforms also share robotically applied liquid sound deadener, which was installed in December 2003, for the S197 Mustang program.

Other major changes include a robotic glass installation cell where Kawasaki robots apply the primer, urethane sealer, and fit the front and rear glass on both the Mustang and Mazda6. An Automated Stacking and Retrieval System (ASRS) was added to control the complexity arising from the different engine options. The Mazda6 utilizes four-cylinder engines from Chihuahua, Mexico, and V6s from Ford's Cleveland, Ohio, plant. V6 Mustang motors come from Cologne, Germany, Mod V8s from Romeo, Michigan. The powertrains and suspensions for both platforms are mated to the bodies on a single line; the end-of-line test equipment was modified to handle both front- and rear-drive vehicles. Even the fuel-fill and battery installation equipment had to be made flexible due to the differences between the two car lines.

"It hasn't been easy," says Cumbaa, "but the effort has been worth it. Launch quality should be among the highest ever at Ford." An achievement all the more amazing given the scale and diversity of the task.