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Old 08-03-2004, 22:12   #1 (permalink)
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US:Ford Plants Banking on New Parts, Models

Ford Plants Banking on New Parts, Models
The Times, Munster, Ind. - August 3, 2004

Motor Trend

Ford Motor Co. is counting on the success of its new Five Hundred/Mercury Montego model sedans and its Freestyle crossover vehicle, and so are workers at its Chicago Assembly and Chicago Heights Stamping plants.

Their jobs could depend on it.

The two plants and their 3,600 employees have begun preparations for full production of the new models, due in showrooms this fall.

Workers at the huge stamping plant are producing all the stamped parts -- floor pans, hoods, roofs and body panels -- for the new models. The parts then are shipped just about 10 miles north to the Chicago Assembly plant on Torrence Avenue.

The 80-year-old assembly plant, which once made Model Ts, spent almost 20 years producing Ford Taurus and Mercury Sables -- 174,000 vehicles annually. But because of their decreasing popularity, Ford has shifted the total production of two vehicles to its Atlanta assembly plant for the 2005 model year.
Following months of preparation, work at the plant currently is in a ramp-up mode, producing vehicles for testing and evaluation rather than for the consumer. The company is doing everything possible to ensure their performance.

"We're checking and rechecking," said Dave Schoenecker, a 28-year assembly plant veteran and union activist. "Everything is going through unbelievable quality control."
The company is so adamant against sending imperfect cars to consumers that Ford's quality control personnel are taking all of the first 1,000 units on 25-mile test drives, including on a test track which simulates off-roading conditions, he said. It also has brought back a number of retired, experienced middle managers to work with employees on the plant floor during the startup.
By early September, the workers will be assembling, coating and painting, trimming, testing and shipping the new models to dealers nationwide.

At the local stamping plant, which historically produced about half the body parts for the Chicago assembly facility, new dyes have been installed on the huge presses that stamp out the galvanized steel body parts. As part of Ford's just-in-time manufacturing, the plant is making 100 percent of the new vehicles' stamped parts while still producing parts for a wide variety of others.

United Auto Workers members at both plants are praising both vehicles' look, feel and driveability.

"I was sold after I drove my first one," Schoenecker said. "The Five Hundred should be a good seller. .... I was instantaneously sold on the constant velocity transmission. You can barely feel them shift. It's a very quiet car. It gives a fantastic ride."
A stamping-plant worker, who asked not to be identified, said he's seen the new vehicles and thinks they'll be big sellers.

Yet the Ford workers have some apprehension about the future of the cars --and their own. "Ford's putting too many of its eggs and our jobs in one basket," said the stamping-plant employee as he stood outside the UAW Local 588 union hall. "If they (the new models) don't sell, we're all in trouble."

Bill Jackson, president of the local, said his members are aware -- but not overly concerned -- about the plant's increased dependence on the new Ford models.

"A large volume of the stamping plant's production is going there, but not everything we stamp," he said.

"We're also shipping to different parts of the company and the world.

We're sending Torrence a larger amount than we have been historically. If the volume isn't good, labor needs drop. We'll be concerned if they don't sell. If they do, life is good."

Paul Eisenstein, publisher of TheCarConnection.com, said the situation could be risky but also has advantages for both plants.

"It focuses attention on quality by limiting the number of vehicles being produced and parts being stamped," said Eisenstein, whose publication is one of the first and largest automotive news sites on the Internet. "It reduces the level of complexity so they can control quality and the problems of dealing with larger numbers of suppliers and shippers."

If they sell well -- if the products succeed -- they will enhance long-term job security, he said.

Jim Hossack, con******t with Tustin, Calif.-based AutoPacific Group, a source for industry analysis and automotive research, said the plant workers should have some concern about how well the vehicles are received, but not too much.

"If it were the Mustang I'd say it was an outright hit," he said. "It's not a major risk, but not an outright home run either. Any supplier takes a risk when associated with parts for any specific company and product. Not all cars are hits, but it's a more efficient production system and you want to be part of an efficient system rather than an inefficient one."

Ford has invested more than $400 million in the Chicago Assembly plant and the nearby 155-acre Chicago Manufacturing Campus, which is home to nine Ford suppliers. The assembly plant's flexible manufacturing system is expected to reduce operating costs by 10 percent to 15 percent, plus half the cost of changing modes and allow it to produce at least eight different models from two platforms.

The investment and the assembly plant's flexibility will help keep it safe from market downturns.
"There's a certain comfort in having the vehicles being dedicated to just one plant," said the assembly plant's Schoenecker. "Being a flexible production plant, there's no doubt we can change as needed."
Hossack agrees the plant's flexibility is a plus for it and its suppliers including the stamping plant.

"Imports come in and take more of the market, and domestics need less capacity," he said. "Companies close capacity, but probably Ford won't close a plant that's been retrofitted. That's favorable for its suppliers."

The key to the success of both plants is how well the cars sell, Hossack said.
"I expect them (Five Hundred/Montego and Freestyle) to do well, at least comparable to Taurus of the past," he said. "If I was a worker, I don't think I'd worry. The best thing they can do is do efficient, high-quality work and let someone else worry about the rest."

(c) 2004, The Times, Munster, Ind.
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