Ford's Flexible Factory

If it’s Monday, it must be Mazdas. Imagine a manufacturing plant so flexible that it can build one product one day, and a completely different product the next.

For Ford Motor Co., this dream has become reality, as the company migrates 75 percent of its body shops and assembly operations from traditional production to flexible production by the end of the decade.

While manufacturing strategies come in various shapes and sizes—from lean to Six Sigma to flexible—what they have in common is the goal of making a company more competitive. Bruce Hettle, director of Vehicle Operations Manufacturing Engineering at Ford, admits that he was skeptical when the move to flexible manufacturing was first proposed. But savings, to the tune of $2 billion over ten years in just the initial gross investment, have made him a believer.

In a keynote address at the recent Assembly Technology Expo, held near Chicago at the end of September, Hettle discussed the impact of standardizing on a flexible manufacturing process. “In the past, the car design drove the assembly process design. Now, the assembly process in one plant looks like the assembly process in all the other plants.” At Ford’s facility in Flat Rock, Mich., this means the plant can run Ford Mustangs one day, and Mazda 6 cars the next. “This is not two mini-plants. It’s one plant with a common assembly process,” said Hettle.

What does Ford mean by flexible? For body shops, it’s the ability to run up to four different models from each vehicle platform, and handle two platforms at once. For final assembly, it’s the ability to adapt to option content changes using common workstation configurations with standard assembly sequences. Noted Hettle, “We want to get the churn out of final assembly.”

Ford is driving compatibility between the product and the process. On the product side, this requires designers to use common engineering, common parts and common assembly sequences. On the manufacturing process side, Ford specifies flexible systems, standardized processes and best practices. “Our hard-tooling days are over,” said Hettle.

Out of the critical path

While this may seem a bit of a contradiction, Ford’s success with flexible manufacturing is based on prescribed standards. Body shops use a building block concept of 16 standard modules or cells—such as Indexing Tool, Turntable Fixture and Process Welder—that are configured in different ways to accommodate the various vehicles Ford makes, including four-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, unitized body and framed vehicle. Final assembly plants use 40 standard cells, such as Chassis Decking and A/C Fill.

In addition to the savings in initial investment, Ford has realized a 50 percent reduction in changeover costs and time, due to standardization and re-use of equipment. As vehicle manufacturers strive to turn out new products in two to three years, as opposed to the five to seven years common for decades, every step in the process is scrutinized for savings. “[Flexible manufacturing] has removed manufacturing from the critical path,” stated Hettle. “We’re in the business of building cars, not building plants. Flexibility means good business.”

But can flexible manufacturing save Ford?

Economic success for the corporation perhaps more accurately hinges on factors such as labor negotiations, health care costs and pension plan commitments—as well as designing cars that Americans want to buy. But by taking manufacturing out of the critical path, Ford is in a better position to respond to its other challenges.

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