Magical Mystery Plant Tour: Dearborn Truck

Our round-the-world tour of car factories starts where the modern industry began: Ford's River Rouge facility, now home of the F-150.

Edward Niedermeyer

The magic of the internet age is that it makes anything possible. A crazy idea floated between two friends and a few tweets (plus a lot of planning and a little luck) can turn into a ‘round-the-world tour of 7 car factories on 3 continents. Whatever interests you, from automotive manufacturing to an obscure anime series, you can always find people online who share your interest and are willing to go to extreme lengths to take your shared interest to the next level.

The flip side of this modern miracle is the awkward moment when online plans and connections become real-world, face-to-face reality. Sitting in the breakfast area of an anonymous Dearborn hotel, pounding coffee to combat the first of what would be many waves of jetlag over the coming 17 days, it hit me: I had no idea which of other people groggily picking at cereal and waffles were my fellow manufacturing enthusiasts. I had names in a spreadsheet, but not a single picture of the people who had committed weeks of their lives and thousands of dollars to my hairbrained scheme.

Just as this realization was turning to intense anxiety, two people sat down behind me and started talking. They were obviously just getting to know each other, and as soon as the word “factory” was uttered I turned around and introduced myself. Our nucleus attracted more and more members of the group, and our circle got bigger and bigger. Just as had happened on Twitter, our excited chatter about the factories we were about to see and what we hoped to learn from them was bringing people together. As each new arrival introduced themself, I began to realize just how diverse this core group of people who had agreed to do the entire Magical Mystery Plant Tour was. Not only had they come from around the world, they had come for a wide variety of different reasons.

Edward Niedermeyer

Some were investors, seeking an up-close look at a complex industry that they were wary about investing in. Others worked in non-automotive manufacturing or lean consulting, and wanted to learn lessons that they could apply to their own work. Some worked in high-tech hardware and software, and had become curious about auto manufacturing after following Tesla. We even had a former McKinsey consultant who had spent most of his career in car plants but hadn't visited any in the last decade or so and wanted to catch up on the latest developments. The attendees' countries of origin were also just as diverse as their backgrounds, coming from Brazil, Norway, Malaysia, Austria, and the United States.

 This mix of wide-eyed newbies and deeply experienced experts sparked an immediate and intense exchange of information that would continue throughout the tour. Questions about the past, present and future of the industry led to lectures and discourses that stretched from lessons learned more than a century in the past to speculation about the deep future of mobility and the place of auto manufacturers in it. From manufacturing and supply chain management to design and marketing, from finance and sales data reporting to drivetrain and electronic architecture technology, we would spend the next 17 days delving into the myriad nooks and crannies of the sprawling business of making and selling cars.

 The conversations that started over coffee and budget-hotel breakfast items and continued on into the bus to the Dearborn Truck Plant were a reminder of how much curiosity there is about the auto industry right now. This business is so huge and complex that we tend to get lost inside its intricacies and forget that people want to understand where their cars come from, how the business has evolved over time, what it has contributed to other businesses and society at large, and where it’s all going. Thanks to companies like Tesla, which experienced industry insiders tend to dismiss as bumbling amateurs, there is more interest in understanding the car business now than there has been in decades.

Edward Niedermeyer

If you want to look into the future of automotive manufacturing, there are few better places to start than the place where it all began: the century-old Ford Rouge complex in Dearborn, Michigan. Here Henry Ford realized his vision of a modern industrial factory, a sprawling landscape of massive structures and smokestacks that took in raw materials from rail lines and deep water ports and spit out cars at a dizzying rate.

Today Ford’s Dearborn Truck Plant in the Rouge is a symbol of how far manufacturing has come. The smoke, soot, and steel are gone, replaced with green roofs, 3D scanners and big data analytics. Yes, it can still be noisy, busy and complex like any other massive manufacturing facility, but anyone who thinks automakers don’t innovate or “need to become tech companies” should come to Dearborn and take a look around.

The F-150’s aluminum body construction keeps its body shop relatively quiet and clean, compared to the flying sparks and ozone smells of weld-heavy steel construction. Roof seams are joined with laser welds, and there’s even a single hard-to-reach spot weld on the cab performed by old-fashioned humans, but the majority of the body is joined with rivets, screws and adhesive. Where robos can reach both sides of a joint, 2,720 self-piercing rivets are used, and where they can’t flow drills drive screws at 5,000 RPM. A staggering 110 meters of adhesive secures everything in between, delivering what plant staff call very high body integrity at the cost of “unbelievable” consumable use. As impressive as these techniques are, it’s clear that they’re made possible by the fact that these trucks typically sell at luxury vehicle prices and the costs of aluminum body construction would be even higher if the plant didn’t recycle 35,000 pounds of aluminum scrap every month.

Edward Niedermeyer

Every 54 seconds a Ford F-150 comes off the line a Dearborn, a cadence that creates a driving bass beat for the industrial symphony inside the factory. With 12 cab styles and 5 box styles, there are 143 different possible body combinations that must be coordinated at every step of production and even far upstream in the supply chain. The only way to manage this relentless pace and complexity is with gobs of data, and because the F-150 is Ford’s financial lifeblood the company spares no expense to keep Dearborn’s beat thumping and avoid downtime that can can quickly add up to millions in costs.

In addition to the “bingo boards” and musical alerts used to track faults and downtime in every car factory, Dearborn’s body shop uses a real-time data analytics developed in-house to keep its automation specialists ahead of any failures. A massive visualization of the entire body assembly process I saw earlier this year at Dearborn’s sister plant in Kentucky has been miniaturized to tablet level at Dearborn, proving that sibling rivalry can be a force for progress and that the level of technology in Ford’s truck plants increases on a continuous basis. The system provides exquisitely detailed metrics for each station in the body assembly process of the 500 riveting, adhesive-applying, flow-drill screwing and laser welding robots, allowing fewer than 40 skilled-trades workers on each shift to stay ahead of any problems before they turn into downtime. When equipment does go down, a paging system automatically escalates the issue up the org chart at regular intervals so by the time any one station is down for 20 minutes the shop manager will be personally leading the effort to bring it back up.

Uptime is clearly the main consideration for a plant making such a high volume of high-margin products, but quality standards are high as well. Every truck made is scanned by laser perceptron systems for conformity to spec, both in the body shop and at the end of final assembly, and when problems emerge skilled trade workers turn to portable Creaform laser scanners that rapidly create detailed 3D scans of components and housings to help identify even tiny, hidden divergences from spec. In one example demonstrated for the tour, scans of a light assembly and its housing revealed that locating tabs between the two parts were off by a matter of millimeters creating a “rathole” that was barely visible but could collect water and dirt. The ability to create scans that can be zoomed, rotated and reveal internal interactions between multiple parts makes even the toughest quality challenges much easier to address.

Edward Niedermeyer

After the quiet and sparsely-populated aluminum body shop, Dearborn’s final assembly area looks a lot more like a typical vehicle plant with much higher staffing levels and human labor. But even here there are signs of futuristic technology creeping into the production line. At a station where workers apply seals to the underbody of trucks passing through on an elevated carrier system, one worker sports an exoskeleton system intended to reduce the repetitive stress of long shifts spent reaching upwards every 54 seconds by adding up to 15 pounds of lifting force. This eye-catching bit of robotic assistance has only been in use for a matter of months, and the worker using it admits that it’s still improving. This is only an early step to reduce the repetitive stress injuries that are the most common injuries in manufacturing plants, but it’s also a tacit admission that robotics technology is still a long way off from being able to consistently handle floppy, malleable parts like seals.

The tour also highlights a 3D printing station that seems to be in a similarly early stage of its usefulness to modern manufacturing. Though it isn’t used to make production parts, it still plays an important role in developing prototype parts changes, tooling jigs and parts like OBD port shields. Compared to the cost and turnaround time of employing a machine shop, 3D printers are are already competitive for these specialized applications, especially when they require small but significant iterations.

Technology on the product side is also creating new manufacturing challenges and forcing Dearborn’s staff to think on their feet and act quickly. When the F-150 began offering adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning as an option calibration station for these systems were simply added to the end of the line. When the take rate for driver-assist options began outstripping what the plant had planned for, calibration began to fall behind Dearborn’s relentless takt time and threatened to slow production. As a result, calibration capabilities were quickly added to the suspension alignment station so cameras are calibrated at the same time as camber and caster keeping the plant chugging along even at high take rates for driver assist systems.

Edward Niedermeyer

Dearborn is a great opportunity to see how the latest technologies are being deployed in auto manufacturing, from “Industry 4.0” analytics and and additive manufacturing to laser scanners and biorobotics, but it’s important to remember that it’s also a unique case. The combination of high profit margins on every truck made and the high volume of demand for Ford’s cash cow mean management can deploy huge amounts of capital at plants like Dearborn, particularly if they help keep production flowing. In comparison to a plant producing the kinds of entry-level sedans that Ford is pulling from its US lineup, the emphasis at an F-150 factory isn’t as much on ultra-lean operations. This means that there are lots of opportunities to experiment with expensive new technologies that might not be cost-effective for other products.

This raises a question that seems to haunt Ford of late: is the eye-popping financial success of its truck business breeding dependence on one part of its business that could be vulnerable to oil price spikes? Indeed it may, but a visit to Dearborn suggests that there’s enough progress still being made on these new technologies that it’s equally valid to argue that the F-150’s financial performance allows Ford to develop technologies that will likely come down in price and proliferate to other parts of the business.

Certainly on the data analytics side, the progress that’s been made in the fundamental big data problem of taking a centralized “firehose” of data and pushing it to more workers in more usable formats hints at exciting new possibilities for the future beyond truck plants. The use of computer vision systems for quality control and diagnostics also seems to have a bright future beyond high-margin trucks as the cost of sensors and software continues to come down. And though worker-assistance biorobotics like the exoskeleton system may be earlier in their development than other new technologies, they hold the potential of reducing the auto industry’s share of the 1.8 million American workers affected by repetitive stress injuries which cost society between $17 and $20 billion every year.

Edward Niederemeyer

At a time when anxieties about automation-related job loss are running high, it’s also heartening to see so many technologies aimed at augmenting rather than replacing human workers. Most of the toughest and most dangerous jobs in the industry have already been largely automated away, leaving places like Dearborn’s body shop sparsely staffed by workers who largely feed and service the machines that lift, rivet and weld. The work that remains is predominantly dependent on the flexibility and dexterity of humans, meaning automaking will likely remain a people business for a long time to come.

 At the end of our tour of Dearborn Truck, some of us gathered at a Syrian restaurant in Dearborn to eat and debrief after our first tour. Most of the newcomers were overwhelmed by what they’d seen: the scale, the complexity, the speed of a line that produced a pickup every sixty seconds and the challenge involved with managing all the workers and suppliers to keep such a massive facility running smoothly. Without other examples to compare the experience with they were largely reticent about their takeaways so early in the tour, so we discussed the unique nature of the high-margin yet high-volume pickups that were made in Dearborn and how this unique segment allows for some of the new technologies, high headcounts and the emphasis on uptime we had seen. 

The lower-margin car and crossover production we would see at our next stop, in Toyota City outside Nagoya, Japan, would likely be quite different, I warned them. But even I wasn't prepared for the contrast that awaited us across the Pacific...