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Ford closings could benefit Mich.

Decision to idle sites in Virginia, Minnesota could send production to Dearborn Truck plant.

Bryce G. Hoffman and Christine Tierney / The Detroit News

What's next
*Ford has identified seven of 14 plants it plans to close or permanently idle. They include assembly plants in Wixom, St. Paul, Minn., Norfolk, Va., St. Louis, and Atlanta, as well a transmission plant in Batavia, Ohio, and a Windsor, Ontario, assembly plant.
*The automaker will target another two assembly plants and five component operations to be closed or idled by 2012.
*Ford is expected to offer hourly workers at the affected plants buyouts.

Ford Motor Co.'s decision to idle two more factories -- Norfolk Assembly in Virginia and Twin Cities Assembly in St. Paul, Minn., in 2008 is a bitter pill for 4,300 workers but could mean added work for some Michigan plants.

Industry experts expect some of the 400,000 units of pickup production from the closed plants to land at factories in southeast Michigan. Ford's modern Dearborn Truck plant at the Rouge facility would be a logical choice to soak up F-150 production from Norfolk.

Ford has now identified five assembly plants and two component plants that are closing. In addition to Norfolk and St. Paul, Ford previously said it planned to close its St. Louis, Atlanta and Wixom assembly plants, Batavia Transmission in Ohio, and Windsor Casting in Ontario.

Ford plans to identify two more assembly plants and five more parts plants that will close before 2012.

The automaker is making it clear that the plants that will remain open and gain new production will be those that become efficient enough to compete with the Japanese, which means more flexible work rules, outsourcing of jobs not directly related to building vehicles, such as lawn maintenance and other measures that will have to be negotiated with the United Auto Workers at individual plants.

"Idling plants and reducing staff are obviously very difficult decisions for all of us, but they also are necessary actions to help restore our North American business to profitability no later than 2008," Mark Fields, Ford's president of the Americas, said Thursday.

The St. Paul plant, one of Ford's oldest facilities, was widely expected to get the ax -- particularly since its sole product, the aging Ford Ranger compact pickup, has seen sales plunge.

But Norfolk was a relatively modern, flexible manufacturing facility, and the company recently invested in an upgrade at the plant. Moreover, it makes the hot-selling F-150 pickup, the backbone of Ford's domestic automotive business. The decision to shutter Norfolk makes it clear that no plant is safe if it is not competitive.

Anne Stevens, chief operating officer of Ford's Americas group, said a number of factors led to the decision to pull the plug on Norfolk, including operating costs, logistics, location and overall production capacity.

"The goal, clearly, is to build more trucks with fewer plants," she said. "You always work for more efficiency and productivity within the existing system."

Ford officials declined to say where Norfolk's share of the F-150 production will end up, but the Dearborn Truck Plant is the most likely candidate, according to David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor.

"They have capacity in Dearborn that they can (use) without losing overall volume," Cole said. "The objective is 100 percent capacity utilization with a minimally incentivized market. That's a winning strategy."

The F-150 also is assembled in Kansas City and Mexico. Ford said Wednesday that it expects to continue to sell more than 900,000 F-series pickups annually, but Cole said it can meet that demand without Norfolk.

The smaller Ranger, on the other hand, seems orphaned by the decision to close the St. Paul plant.

"As we come closer to idling, we'll talk about future product plans for the Ranger," Fields said. "Clearly we're looking at our product plans."

The decision to close Norfolk and Twin Cities also shows an interest in consolidating production closer to Ford's home base in southeast Michigan, where many of the company's suppliers are located.

That continuing uncertainty is bound to spur competition between Ford plants eager to remain open. Ford is already negotiating with union locals to get the sort of modern operating agreements that will allow the company to better compete with Japanese rivals.

Union leaders, however, say the contracts they have negotiated on behalf of their members are not the problem.

"Once again, dedicated hourly and salaried Ford workers are paying the price for the company's sliding market share," the UAW President Ron Gettelfinger and Vice President Gerald Bantom said in a statement.
 
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