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Old Ford truck plant gears up to build Focus


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Old Ford truck plant gears up to build Focus

Michigan Assembly getting modernized



The $550-million transformation of the Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne from a closed factory that used to build big trucks and SUVs into a modern facility that churns out fuel-efficient cars is about halfway complete.

When it is done, Ford will begin building an all-new version of the Ford Focus compact car.

For southeast Michigan, the project means employment for about 3,200 workers as Ford closes the neighboring Wayne Assembly Plant, where the current Focus is built, and transfers them to Michigan Assembly.

David Lawrence, a body construction engineer at Ford, said the effort shows how Ford's goal to become a seamless global company is coming to life.

"The company actually has changed," said Lawrence, 57, who lives in Wayne and has worked at Ford for 15 years. "It's real."

Lawrence is just one of nearly 700 Ford workers and contractors who are busily working to turn the grungy, 53-year-old plant into one of Ford's most sophisticated flexible manufacturing stars and an example of how auto manufacturing is going global.

For Ford, the redesigned Focus and the transformation of Michigan Assembly are the culmination of CEO Alan Mulally's strategy to build more cars off fewer platforms and prove that Ford can make a profit building small cars in the U.S.

At each step of the process, Lawrence and co-worker Dave Workman, said Ford is closely matching the new manufacturing process at Michigan Assembly's body shop to Ford's plants in Europe that also build the Focus.

"It's kind of nice to see it happening, and the company breathing life back into the building," Workman said.

Michigan Assembly to shift to compacts

Since December, Michigan Assembly -- which closed in 2008 and used to build big trucks such as the Ford Bronco, F-150, Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator -- has been evolving.

The plant that opened in 1957 has gone from being a mostly empty, unused 2.8-million-square-foot industrial building into something that is beginning to look like a modern automotive assembly plant. Soon, it will be ready to churn out the fuel-efficient small cars that many consider the future.

Plant manger Rob Webber said the most labor intensive part of the project was the removal of 50 years of plumbing, wires and heating and cooling ducts.

"That stuff is big, it's time consuming, and it's difficult to rush. Once that gets done, then it's quicker to get some of this going," Webber said.

Now, the plant floor is filled with nearly 700 workers who are installing the platforms and conveyor belts that will carry the Focus through the plant. Still to come are the individual workstations and most of the tools workers will use.

"By the end of this year, we will be building cars," Webber said.

$450-million investment

Production of the new Focus will begin after Ford transfers workers from the nearby Wayne Assembly later this year.

While Ford hasn't released all the details, Ford also is investing $450 million in Michigan to assemble lithium-ion batteries at its Rawsonville plant in Ypsilanti and to assemble several hybrid or electric vehicles at the renovated Michigan Assembly Plant.

John Wolkonowicz, automotive analyst for IHS Global Insight, said the new Focus could be a groundbreaking vehicle for Ford because it will be better than the outgoing Focus and will cost more than Ford's previous compact cars.

Ford is hoping the new Focus will compete more effectively against the No. 1 Toyota Corolla and No. 2 Honda Civic.

Through April, Ford sold 57,704 Focus cars in the U.S., putting it in third place in the compact segment behind the Honda Civic with sales of 78,669 and the Toyota Corolla with sales of 91,672, according to Autodata.

Wolkonowicz said Ford needs to raise the price of the next Focus beyond its $16,290 starting price because its new Ford Fiesta subcompact car will cost more than $16,000 when it is well equipped.

Ford also loses money on the current Focus, he said.

"The new Fiesta and Focus are beautiful products. People are going to like them, but the price positioning is going to be a shock," Wolkonowicz said. "This is not an assured success."

Learning new equipment

Meanwhile, work continues inside the factory.

Some UAW electricians already have started training with the new equipment, Webber said, and UAW team leaders were scheduled to begin training sessions at the plant this week.

While Ford is putting some of its most advanced technology into the plant, it also is reusing some equipment to keep costs down. That includes reusing tool rails from its Norfolk Assembly Plant in Virginia, which closed in 2007. A tool rail hangs above a plant worker so the power cord for assembly equipment can slide as the worker moves around.

Still, most of the equipment in the plant is new and will allow Ford to build multiple models on the same line. By 2012, Ford expects that Michigan Assembly will be one of several plants producing 10 different vehicles off of the same platform.

"It's amazing. We went from lights-out to bringing in the best equipment and technology," said Dave Workman, a body construction engineer.

In the future, co-worker David Lawrence, 57, said, "I see us being able to move products and tooling from plant to plant and even from country to country."



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