Ford Escapes rolling off the line at Ford's Louisville Assembly Plant
Ford Escapes rolling off the line at Ford’s Louisville Assembly Plant

Since when did manufacturing plants begin looking like EPCOT?

Seriously, if you have children of a certain age (or, clearly, are a reporter of a certain age), you could save yourself a boat load of money on lodging and passes and Mickey Mouse-shaped ice cream bars, and just take the kids to the Louisville Assembly Plant on Fern Valley Road.

There’s probably more advanced industrial technology crammed into a million square feet here than any other place on Earth.

Steve Stone and Daryl Sykes
Building Captain Steve Stone and Daryl Sykes, LAP plant manager.

Today Ford announced its intention to increase the number of flexible manufacturing plants globally by 2017, plants that will likely be very similar to what’s in Louisville now.

This is, according to a news release, “the largest manufacturing expansion in 50 years with eight new assembly plants and six new powertrain plants globally to support growth and retain approximately 130,000 manufacturing jobs around the world.”

By 2017, Ford plants will be fitted so that they can produce, on average, four different vehicle models at each plant – an upgrade our Louisville plant received all the way back in 2011 with an infusion of $600 million from the company, an expansion in part financed by a $5.9 billion federal loan to a then-struggling Ford.

fordmural
One of many Louisville-themed murals in the plant.

 

Ford executives also promise a ramped up commitment to getting cutting edge technology in 3D printing and robotics on the floor of all the Detroit-based auto manufacture’s plants as soon as possible.

thelinestops
Interesting fact: the line stops for lunch break. It’s the weirdest thing. Everything just comes to a halt. That feels pretty darned civil.

There are already several thousand robots at work at the LAP. The ones we saw moved with the grace of a ballet dancer and the precision of a surgeon. Watch this enormous robot install the guts of an entire dashboard in under a minute (48 seconds to be precise):

But when asked about robots and workforce, our tour guide, Steve Miniom, said “Someone has to program all these things all the time. It’s kind of just trading one worker for another kind of worker.”

And as we rolled by on our tour, workers often stopped to wave or say something to us.

We watched Escape after Escape roll off the line all shiny and colorful like jellybeans on wheels.

The tour included dazzling data:

• Eighty five percent of the vehicle is recyclable. The floormats are made from recycled bottles, much of the interior upholstery is also made from discarded socks, sweaters and denim.

• The foam is made from soybeans.

• Its Ecoboost engine has the best highway fuel economy for small SUVs with a EPA-estimated rating of 23 city/32 highway/26 combined miles per gallon.

The skeleton of an Escape bares an eerie resemblance to a horse skull.
The skeleton of an Escape bares an eerie resemblance to a horse skull.

• The plant bills itself as very eco-conscious: last year they recycled 2.3 million pounds of paper, 75,000 bottles, 54,000 pallets and they installed a “green” parking lot that keeps more than 18 million gallons of water out of the storm drain system.

• When the plant was retooled in 2011, Ford installed robotic features to the assembly line that allow the vehicles to be raised and lowered depending on the position of the worker. The word “ergonomic” is a popular one in the vocabulary of the Ford folks.

Injury rates in all of Ford’s plants have dropped 90 percent since 2000 at least in part due to Ford’s Simulated factory training, which was developed right here at the LAP and has recently expanded to Flat Rock Assembly Plant in Michigan .

Ford is currently on pace to build 6 million vehicles in 2013 – approximately 16 vehicles every 60 seconds around the world.

By 2015, Ford will have opened:

  • 2011: Ford Sollers Elabuga Assembly Plant – Russia
  • 2012: Ford Sollers Naberezhnye Chelny Assembly Plant – Russia
  • 2012: Chongqing #2 Assembly Plant – China
  • 2012: Craiova Engine Plant – Romania
  • 2012: Ford Thailand Motors – Thailand
  • 2013: Chongqing Engine Plant – China
  • 2013: Nanchang Assembly – China
  • 2014: Camaçari Engine Plant – Brazil
  • 2014: Chongqing #3 Assembly Plant – China
  • 2014: Chongqing Transmission – China
  • 2014: Sanand Assembly Plant – India
  • 2014: Sanand Engine Plant – India
  • 2015: Hangzhou Assembly – China
  • 2015: Ford Sollers Elabuga Engine Plant – Russia

So really, the EPCOT – Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow –  thing isn’t that much of a step. Future World, World Showcase for real.

(Unfortunately you can’t take the kids to the LAP. I checked with Judd Templin of Strategic Public Partners, who handles Ford’s PR, and he said there are no public tours right now. So go find a Ford plant worker and make friends!)

Today, the Ford company celebrated both 100 years in Louisville and 100 years since the installation of possibly the greatest contribution to manufacturing of all time – the moving assembly line.

Henry Ford’s innovation allowed the plant to produce more cars at a much lower price and turned the Model T into an affordable transportation option for the average American.

The manufacturer began its Louisville operation with 17 employees and churned out as many as 12 Model T’s a day. Eventually, Ford built a Model T every 24 seconds and sold more than 15 million worldwide. Today, the Louisville Assembly Plant produces upwards of 365,000 Ford Escapes a year.

Times sure have changed. Just back in 2009, the LAP worked only one shift with 1,100 people in the building. Now the LAP is on track to be the highest producing facility next year.

There are three shifts now, 4,500 employees, approximately 1,200 of whom have transferred to Louisville from another Ford plant, mostly from Michigan, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Atlanta and Northern Ohio.

We asked Plant Manager, Daryl Sykes, a 20-year veteran of the company,  what he thinks about Louisville’s talent market. He said, “Thus far, there really isn’t a problem with the entry level talent pool.” Of course, LAP employees undergo massive amounts of training in the plant’s simulated factory center.

Steve Stone, the plant’s United Auto Worker 862 Building captain, said he was particularly proud of the company’s dedication to hiring veterans.

Sykes says the plant still can’t keep up with the demand for the Escape. Although Louisville is home to “the most flexible automotive facility in the world”– it can manufacture up to six different types of vehicles – the entire production of the LAP is dedicated to this small, energy efficient SUV.

“They’re selling like hotcakes,” says Sykes. “We can’t make enough of them.”

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