U.S.A.:NEW VISION FOR A NEW CENTURY: Ford reinvents the Rouge
NEW VISION FOR A NEW CENTURY: Ford reinvents the Rouge
$2-billion plant aims to save jobs and planet
BY JAMIE BUTTERS
FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER
BY THE NUMBERS
$2 billion invested at Rouge site.
$234 million in state and local incentives available.
6,000 workers on site.
2,000 workers at new truck plant.
10.4 acres of sedum grass growing on the roof.
2.5 million square feet at the new truck plant.
12 years since an auto assembly plant opened in metro Detroit.
At its nearly 90-year-old Rouge manufacturing complex, Ford Motor Co. is about to open metro Detroit's first new vehicle assembly plant in more than a decade -- and not just because it will make a great tourist destination.
The Dearborn-based automaker has invested more than $2 billion in factories and infrastructure to turn Henry Ford's model of 20th-Century manufacturing -- in all its dirty, back-aching glory -- into Bill Ford's vision of 21st-Century manufacturing that nurtures workers, the environment and shareholders.
Soil-cleaning shrubs between buildings, heat-reducing grass planted on the roof and skylights save money that helps pay for the extra up-front spending, supporters say.
For now, those advances are limited to the all-new Dearborn Truck Plant, which has a Job One ceremony -- the official opening -- planned for today. Workers have been making dealer-bound trucks since early April, and the plant expects to hit full speed by mid-June. If those efforts turn out as economically shrewd as billed, they could turn up in other plants around the world.
Perhaps more important is that the new truck plant is a showcase of Ford's flexible manufacturing system that is being installed throughout North America. That's the part of Ford's Rouge that has to pay real dividends in terms of better quality, higher productivity, fewer injuries and cheaper, faster changes to models and features that customers will pay for.
"There was no way I was going to let the Rouge disappear," Bill Ford said in an interview with the Free Press about the plant his great-grandfather built nearly 90 years ago, and a place he likes to visit for inspiration. "I knew we could put together a world-class facility."
Bill Ford sprung his idea on the company in May 1999, when he was chairman, but not yet chief executive officer of the company Henry Ford founded in 1903.
"Bill Ford's folly" -- as it was called by some in the company -- was to tap the innovative concepts that architect and designer William McDonough had brought to furniture maker Herman Miller's office and manufacturing spaces in western Michigan.
This touchy-feely stuff about psychological and social well-being was foreign to Jay Richardson: The construction project manager already knew how to erect a big metal box and throw some tools in there.
But Bill Ford likes to say Richardson's transformation from skeptic to advocate has been as profound as the changes to the Rouge.
Remember, Ford Motor lost $6.4 billion over 2001 and 2002, so many ideas were floated to save some cash: Maybe 6 acres of living roof, instead of 10.4 acres, would be enough. Do you really need 36 skylights and 10 glass-walled rooftop window boxes the size of a house?
"As we came to appreciate what we were trying to accomplish here -- and that we were really trying to produce a model for Ford's next century -- we became quite possessive and almost combative at points in time," Richardson recalled.
He acknowledges that the up-front investment is higher, but he and Tim O'Brien, a spokesman who previously worked in Ford's environmental and real estate groups, insist that every decision will save more money in the long run.
They decline to give specific figures, such as how much the living roof costs.
But like a smart consumer who considers trade-in value as well as no-interest loans, they point out the many ways that the new plant saves money as well as the environment.
The living roof, the porous-paved parking lot and man-made swales slow storm-water runoff and spare the company huge sewer-building expenses.
A system that distills paint fumes into hydrogen-rich gas then uses fuel cells to create electricity is projected to save $100,000 a year.
The sedum grass growing on the roof insulates the plant, making it as much as 10 degrees more comfortable without installing or running extra heating and cooling equipment.
Lifting the spirit
It's these everyday benefits that mean the most to workers at the gleaming new plant.
The pallets that glide silently from station to station and lift the truck to the ideal height for any worker on any job.
The lighter, quieter and more precise electric tools that replaced pneumatic equipment.
And the sunlight, radiating off the white-painted walls, lifts the spirit, said Robert Pouncy, 36, of Southfield, who works in final assembly.
"This plant is hundreds of years ahead of the old plant. . . . Over here, it's like Florida," he said while showing off the quality-control equipment that won't let him send an imperfectly screwed bolt through to the next station.
The UAW also allowed some work-rule changes it had resisted before, such as job rotations among seven-person teams, which reduces injuries.
"All of our focus has to be on that base operator," said Rob Webber, plant manager.
Except for the sunshine, most of these improvements will find their way into all of Ford's North American plants, as vehicle models change, said Roman Krygier, group vice president for manufacturing and quality.
Using the same pallet system, welding robots and workstation design at all plants means that Ford can buy equipment in bulk to get a lower price.
Initial investment in welding robots, for instance, is 10 percent to 15 percent less than a traditional system, Krygier said. Over 10 years, he expects to save up to $2 billion on facilities and tooling.
Design changes can cost 50 percent less, he said.
And insights discovered by workers in Norfolk, Va., are being shared with those in Dearborn and suburban Kansas City, Mo., improving quality and efficiency. Ford plans on bringing flexible manufacturing to its Flat Rock and Chicago plants later this year.
"We're setting the stage for our future: in terms of cost, in terms of quality and in terms of getting new product out to the customer," Krygier said.
Focusing on the workers' needs, standardizing plants and building in flexible processes that can accommodate multiple vehicles and platforms should help Ford compete with top Japanese automakers, such as Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. Those automakers share systems and practices worldwide, said Michael Robinet, managing director of CSM Worldwide Inc., an automotive forecasting company.
Not that Ford really needs the Rouge to make nine different models on three different platforms, but building in that kind of flexibility protects the long-term viability of the plant.
"It's refreshing to see Ford consider the longer term here, as opposed to some of the investment decisions that were made through the early '90s and even later '90s that may not have considered flexibility as important of a parameter as they do now," Robinet said.
The longer-term vision also holds out hope that Detroit's demise might not be as certain as some would say.
While the Henry Ford museum touts the plant tours and their potential $23.7-million annual impact, Comerica economist David Littmann estimates the 3 1/2-year construction project would have a $3.6-billion impact on the region -- one that is enhanced by $222 million in state incentives.
It also virtually secures 2,000 good-paying jobs for decades. For the Downriver communities, it can bolster transportation, housing and retail activity. "We're developing a critical mass, and this plays into that," Littmann said.
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.
My next Ford.....