The sound of silence is not comforting to Debbie Manzano, plant manager of the Dearborn Truck Plant, which builds America’s bestselling Ford F-150.
“A quiet factory is a horrible feeling,” she said recently.
But when it comes time for a big changeover — moving from manufacturing an older model pickup to a redesigned truck — auto plants shut down for at least two weeks and send nearly all of the salaried and hourly production workers home for “summer” break.
This period is when miracles happen behind the scenes. For the 2021 F-150, as confirmed by Kelli Felker, Ford global manufacturing and labor communications manager, the shutdown periods will be:
The situation is not quite like Santa’s elves at Christmas but almost.
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While 1,300 workers may stream into the factory during a single shift at an enormous Ford plant during a typical production cycle, those numbers shrink to maybe 10% as material handlers come in to box up parts used to build the older model F-150 to ship to dealerships, repair shops and body shops. New headlights, grills, gear shifts and more will be brought into the plants.
Skilled tradesmen and women — electricians, pipefitters, millwrights and machine repair workers — come in to update equipment and fix worn machinery. Engineers will review the ergonomics of the production line. Health and safety monitors will be on site. Things are inspected, updated.
While the 2021 is a major redesign, the primary changes are reflected in the luxury interior with dramatic touches that create more comfortable work and living space.
A price for the new F-150 has not been released. And details related to horsepower and towing capacity will be made available at a later date, Ford said.
Currently, F-150 prices can start at $28,745 and exceed $75,000. The average F-Series cost is $51,585
A smooth production transition is hugely important for autoworkers, auto company and car buyers.
“The F-150 is going to launch in two plants, which gives us an opportunity to run out our current F-150 while we ramp up the new one,” Jim Farley, chief operating officer, told Deutsche Bank analysts on June 10. “We’re in really good shape.”
When a new product launch goes right, Ford builds and sells and delivers more vehicles quickly — without headaches, and union workers get bigger profit-sharing checks at the end of the year. When things don’t go smoothly, well, it’s all bad for everybody.
“The Chicago launch last year was a stark reminder to stay laser focused,” Farley said. “We have to avoid concurrent Ford and Lincoln launches in the same plant, we need to use our shutdown periods to resolve engineering and improve our supply readiness.”
It’s also a time to identify problems on pre-production prototype vehicles and find solutions which, Farley noted, didn’t happen with the Ford Explorer or Lincoln Aviator launch in 2019. Problems at the Chicago Assembly Plant have been mentioned during the past six months as lessons learned. They played a key role in disappointing earnings. Unexpectedly high warranty costs also contributed to the financial woes.
In 2019, Ford shipped thousands of 2020 Ford Explorers and Lincoln Aviators by truck from its Chicago factory to its Flat Rock plant south of Detroit as workers desperately attempted to identify and fix a series of complicated problems in the much-awaited SUVs. Some vehicles were recalled, including from dealer lots.
The costly problems slowed sales of hot new products. Aviator prices start at $51,100. Explorers range from $36,675 to $58,250.
No one wants to see more mistakes.
“We are holding ourselves accountable for world-class execution,” Farley said.
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What was originally scheduled to be a July changeover stretched into the fall because of the two-month industry shutdown in response to the coronavirus. So summer break for UAW families and salaried workers at the plants has been delayed, too.
“Our UAW-Ford members are excited to be a part of this changeover. They are looking forward to a very successful launch,” said Brian Rothenberg, UAW spokesman. “UAW-Ford members are proud that their F-150 product is the bestselling pickup in the world.”
The company sells 900,000 to 1 million F-150 pickups each year. Ford executives routinely note that a truck comes off the assembly line every 53 seconds or so. Manzano, the plant manager, plays it safe with, “better than every 60 seconds.”
Last Thursday, actor Denis Leary hosted the online-only reveal of the 2021 F-150.
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While some new product launches can be incredibly complicated, Ford doesn’t expect any surprises or hiccups on its new truck.
John Savona, Ford president of North America manufacturing, told the Free Press late Monday, “We are confident in the ability of the men and women of Dearborn Truck Plant and Kansas City Assembly Plant to build the new F-150 with quality.”