The all-new Ford F-150 is the toughest, smartest and most capable F-150 ever, and its advanced manufacturing and assembly adds another chapter to Ford's storied history, where innovation has always been the standard. Steve Engelhardt reports.
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It was in 1908 when Henry Ford first introduced the Model T automobile to the public, and only five years later when he integrated a moving assembly line method of production that revolutionized the way businesses manufactured and met market demand. They were two variables—a product and a process—whose groundbreaking properties would serve to define Ford’s reputation as a leading innovator and catalyst of cutting-edge automotive technology throughout the next century. And with the company announcing in January 2014 that it would redesign and enhance its most popular vehicle, the F-150, as well as integrate an entirely new set of manufacturing technologies at the facilities where it’s made, it was clear that Ford was ready to once again make a revolutionary impact upon not only the automotive sector, but global industry as a whole.
Much as the Model T defined Ford’s initial success in the automotive market, the 2015 Ford F-150 today serves as the company’s crown jewel and as part of Ford F-Series, its most popular vehicle. In fact, for the last 33 years F-Series has served as the best-selling vehicle in the United States, an integral and sustained player in America’s deep-running love affair with the pickup truck and what it stands for. “Ford F-Series was first introduced in 1948 and has since served as an icon for not only Ford Motor Company, but for American automotives and manufacturing overall,” says Bruce Hettle, vice president of North America Manufacturing for Ford.
Now, the company is proactively taking what many refer to as “America’s Truck” and flipping it on its head with a brand new material design. Chief among the changes in the 2015 model is the shift from a steel body to a lighter, aluminum alloy body.
“It’s a high-strength, military-grade, aluminum alloy body whose properties helped to reduce up to 700 pounds of weight, improving capability, performance and fuel efficiency,” he says.
The weight loss has led to a number of positive effects upon the truck’s performance, as the new 2015 unit can tow up to 1,100 more pounds and haul up to 530 more pounds than the 2014 model, and achieves the highest EPA-estimated fuel economy ratings of any full-size gasoline pickup available in the market. Specifically, when equipped with an available 2.7-liter EcoBoost® engine, the 2015 Ford F-150 4×2 returns EPA-estimated fuel economy ratings of 19 mpg in cities, 26 mpg on highways, and 22 mpg when combined.
The truck also has an available 360-degree camera system that utilizes exterior cameras to create a bird’s-eye view of the truck to help drivers park and maneuver in tight spots, and navigate narrow roads and trails when driving.
With respect to the vehicles’ beds, the all-new BoxLink™ cargo management system combines metal brackets and custom cleats to secure a variety of accessories in the cargo box, including ramps, bed dividers, and storage bins.
The radical new design may have been seen as a risk by some, given the original model’s already established presence in the market, but early sales figures show demand for the truck is booming.
“Truck customers are some of the most loyal consumers in the market, and the early figures show as much, and because of such success, we see ourselves ramping up production of the units even more as the year goes on,” says Hettle.
For Hettle, the launch of the revolutionary truck and its success thus far is particularly significant. Since 2009, Hettle’s team has been planning the shut down and retooling of the company’s historic Rouge Center production plant in Dearborn, Mich., one of two U.S. plants where the F-150 is manufactured, to allow for machinery and process upgrades to be integrated into the facilities that would allow them to meet surging demand for the truck.
“This was a big decision, because the Dearborn Truck Plant, which is part of Ford’s Historic Rouge Center, is the primary production location for the F-150, Ford’s top selling unit,” he says, adding, “So to shut down such a facility, it meant temporarily putting a number of workers on hold and ceasing production of our most popular vehicle.”
For two months, Hettle and his team oversaw a $359 million transition of the factory, and by the beginning of December, the plant was ready to begin production again. “During this time, the Dearborn plant experienced the largest overhaul ever in its long and storied history,” he says, adding, “Much of the legacy equipment was replaced with the latest in manufacturing technology, which was necessary for the long-term production of such an advanced vehicle.”
Among the new processes implemented in the plant were new press lines to help stamp four different types of high-strength aluminum alloys that assist with light-weighting the vehicle and cab box, as well as new hydroforming lines to use fluid pressure to form metal tubes into structurally strong support rails. Additionally, there is now an advanced chemical and heat treat area for corrosion resistant and material hardening, allowing for stronger, more durable materials to be produced, and the implementation of a closed-loop aluminum recycling system process in which all aluminum assembly scrap is collected and sorted so it can be used again in the new F-150’s—a process that saves energy and lowers overall costs.
“We also invested in 500 new robots in our brand-new body shops so we can conduct state-of-the-art joining technology, which allows for a much more durable truck,” Hettle says, adding, “and finally, our paint shops were updated with dirt detection technology and increased automation for a much more durable paint application upon each of the trucks.”
Overall, the new processes lead to a much more efficient—and greener—Dearborn Truck Plant and the changes figure to set the tone for other major automotive companies looking to keep their facilities up to date with the technology of their vehicles. After all, when meaningful change occurs across an industry, it’s usually from an industry leader, much like Ford is to the automotive sector.
Hettle says that during the renovations, current employees participated in an intensive training program to get them up to speed on production of the new F-150, and hired an additional 500 employees at the Dearborn Truck plant to accommodate demand that soon followed.
And because of such a strong start, Hettle says that the company recently made the decision to expand production of the F-150 to their plant in Kansas City, Missouri. In fact, because of such a strong first-sales month, he says the plant hired 900 additional workers to come in and help the plant accommodate surging demand.
The 1,400 jobs added across both plants speak to a greater commitment by Ford: the American worker.
“In 2011 Ford made a promise to the United Auto Workers to add 12,000 jobs by 2015, and with the recent additional hires, that number is now actually well over 15,000.” He says the combination of a great product manufactured by a highly skilled worker is what makes Ford who they are. “The F-150 has long stood as an iconic vehicle in this country, and it’s largely because of the skill and dedication of our American workers that we are able to consistently manufacture a high quality truck year in and year out.” And he says that if demand continues to increase, the company could soon be hiring even more.
The decision to shake-up the makeup of Ford’s most popular model was a huge bet, but it looks as though it’s going to payoff in a big way.
With a revolutionary F-150 now out on the roads, and a manufacturing presence behind it that is just as impressive, Ford Motor Company appears to be strongly positioned to continue its presence as one of the world’s most dynamic innovators.