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Ford Models to Double With Parts Sharing, Flexible Assembly

Posted 5/13/03

By Joe Wiesenfelder

Editor’s Note: Nick Scheele (pronounced shay-la), Ford Motor Company’s president and chief operating officer, spoke at a Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA) luncheon at the Chicago Historical Society while in town to tour Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant. From this address and an interview over lunch, Senior Producer Joe Wiesenfelder details how changes in manufacturing here and throughout North America will transform the product offering from Ford’s many brands.

CHICAGO — “From a customer’s perspective, this is a great time in the auto industry,” said Nick Scheele, president and chief operating officer of Ford Motor Company at a luncheon sponsored by the Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA).

Nick Scheele, president and chief operating officer of Ford Motor Company, addresses the Midwest Automotive Media Association at the Chicago Historical Society.

“There are more product choices than ever before. More companies from around the world are building new vehicles in every segment of the market. These new vehicles have more features and functionality, and are cleaner, safer and more efficient. At the same time, the cost of buying a new car in the U.S. is trending down. According to a recent survey, new automobiles are the most affordable they have been since 1978. They require an average of 19.9 weeks of median family income, a full week less than during the first six months of last year.

“From a manufacturer’s perspective, the same things that are delighting customers are turning the auto industry into a fiercely competitive global dogfight,” Scheele said. “Traditionally ‘foreign’ automakers are actively moving many aspects of their business to North America. If you are already established in North America, you had better believe this new competition is going to force you to work harder than ever.”

Like most manufacturers, Scheele said the only way Ford can succeed in this cutthroat environment is through strong products — or strong “product,” in the singular, the peculiar lingo of the automotive industry.

Imminent Ford models include the 2004 F-150 full-size pickup truck, this summer, followed in autumn by the Ford Freestar minivan, which replaces the current Windstar. A sister van, the Mercury Monterey, will go on sale at the same time, replacing the Villager, which was discontinued in 2002. “Over the next five years we are going to bring out 65 new Ford, Lincoln and Mercury products in North America,” Scheele said, adding that the Lincoln and Mercury lineups will be revamped over the next three years.

Other brands Ford owns or controls also have rollouts planned. In June, Jaguar launches the redesigned all-aluminum 2004 XJ sedan. Before year’s end, Volvo will market a redesigned 2004 S80 sedan, “R”-badged performance versions of its S60 sedan and V70 wagon and a new small car. “At Mazda, over just the next two years, we’re going to introduce eight new products in Japan, seven in North America and four in Europe,” Scheele added.

To facilitate this schedule, “We have literally reinvented the product creation process in North America,” Scheele said, then detailed changes both in how Ford develops vehicles and how they will be manufactured. “This new process replaces six loosely tied product-development groups in Dearborn with a single, integrated and platform-focused North American Product Development team,” he said. “We’re using a more unified approach today, based heavily on more commonality, reusability and frame flexibility.”

Scheele said the new approach will improve development efficiency by 10 percent annually, speed product development by 25 percent and double the number of products compared to today.

The Mazda Springboard
Key to the plan is more sharing of parts and resources and a new, flexible manufacturing process. Mazda, in which Ford holds a controlling interest, plays no small part in the company’s product plans for cars. Scheele said its Mazda6 midsize sedan platform will serve as the foundation for 10 future models, including one or two each for Lincoln and Mercury, eventually representing up to 800,000 units in North America, roughly 20 percent of Ford’s production here.

The Mazda6 architecture supports front- and all-wheel drive, four- and six-cylinder engines, hybrid powertrains and five or seven passengers. Ford chose it over other platforms in the Ford family, Scheele said, because it is one of the most modern and, simply, because “it was there,” he said. “The Mazda6 is a superb vehicle. It was fully engineered, it was ready and we knew a year ago that we needed product, and we needed product fast. So we took something that was the finest C/D platform that was available, and we said, ‘We’re gonna go,’ and we went.”

The letters are industryspeak for the vehicle’s size. The Mazda6 is a C/D car, the compact Ford Focus is a C car and the subcompact Fiesta (no longer sold here) is a B car.

Asked how the Ford family would decrease its number of platforms by a claimed 25 percent without resorting to so-called badge engineering — the practice of selling virtually identical vehicles under different brands distinguished only by their badges and token trim variations — Scheele said, “You and consumers in North America will have to be the judge of that. We believe we have a process, we have the capability, and we will deliver fully differentiated vehicles.”

One of the first products to borrow the Mazda6 architecture will be the Futura sedan announced at the New York International Auto Show last month, a Taurus replacement expected in 2005 as a 2006 model. Though the Taurus and its sister Mercury Sable have been built here at Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant, as well as in Atlanta, the local facility is switching over to produce the Ford Five Hundred sedan, its Mercury Montego sister vehicle and the Ford Freestyle (formerly called the CrossTrainer), a seven-seat crossover wagon based on the Five Hundred. All three are D-size cars that will sell in 2004 as 2005 models.

Different Models on the Same Assembly Line
“Here in Chicago we are updating our assembly plant with a flexible body shop that will enable us to use one set of reprogrammable tooling to build two platforms and up to eight different models,” Scheele said.

Where current production lines are limited to one model, and plants often account for one platform, flexible manufacturing allows different models to come together on the same line, one after the other. “You can do it with two or even three platforms,” Scheele elaborated. “In Europe we’re going to have plants that can do B cars, C/D cars and C cars.

“We’re not at a situation where we can do cars and trucks, but here [in North America] we will probably get to where we can do at least two different platforms,” he said. “You can’t see it today, but you will be able to. Whether we’ll actually ever do that is a separate issue.”

The main advantage to flexible manufacturing is the ability to pattern vehicle supply to market demand. “Cars have a cyclical demand pattern,” Scheele said. “The objective is to keep all of your plants running at the highest possible level of capacity utilization. So what you want to do is balance the cycles.”

Ford launched its flexible assembly movement with the plants in Dearborn, Mich., Kansas City, Mo., and Norfolk, Va., that are producing the 2004 F-150. “About 75 percent of our plants will be flexible by the end of the decade,” Scheele said.

Though the Chicago plant isn’t the first to go flex, it is the first from any automaker in North America to feature a supplier park, a 155-acre site whose six new buildings will house a dozen or so of the third-party suppliers that produce seats, instrument panels and other pieces of the vehicle jigsaw puzzle. Located one-half mile from the 79-year-old South Chicago facility, the park eases logistical issues such as parts and component shipping and warehousing, and should further improve flexibility.

Because many suppliers are not unionized, the United Auto Workers have resisted such supplier parks, but Ford has pledged to retain the current plant’s 2,500 workers. The expansion is expected to add 800 to 1,000 employees when production is in full swing.

Scheele said additional supplier parks in North America will depend on the success of Chicago. “It’s been successful in Europe, but the conditions in Europe are a little different, so we’ll see.”

Dearborn’s Ford Rouge Center F-150 plant was recently rebuilt and incorporates some radical environmental programs, such as a section of roof covered with vegetation that is claimed to block summer heat and help manage rain water. Asked if the new supplier park or other plants would adopt any of these steps, Scheele said it depends on the location and whether the facility is new or existing. “The Rouge is an all-new plant, from the ground up,” he said. “We’ll adopt some of the same principles wherever we can, but the environment is totally different. Some of the specifics we will utilize.”

Copyright 2003;
Image by Joe Wiesenfelder,

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My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.

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