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Ford prepares Dearborn Truck Plant for new aluminum-bodied F-150

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Dearborn – — Ford Motor Co. is preparing its Dearborn Truck Plant for production of the all-new aluminum-bodied 2015 F-150 pickup with the most extensive retooling in the plant’s 10-year history.

Since Monday, about 1,500 employees have been ripping up robots, dismantling old conveyors and preparing to install all new equipment that will be used to build the next-generation pickup. The work, which includes 1,100 trailers hauling out the old scrap and bringing in the new equipment around the clock, will last for about half of the plant’s eight-week shutdown.

“It’s been orchestrated literally by the minute,” said Joe Hinrichs, Ford’s president of the Americas. “It’s a massive undertaking. One of the bigger logistical challenges we’ve ever seen.”

About 3,000 of the plant’s 3,600 hourly workers are on a temporary layoff — receiving state unemployment and supplemental unemployment benefit pay totaling 74 percent of their base pay — until two units return Sept. 22 and the third returns in October. About 600 Ford employees have joined 1,000 contract workers disassembling the plant’s body shop and installing the new one.

Most of the steel baskets and columns used throughout the plant aren’t worth saving, but Ford will attempt to re-use robots, control panels and welding equipment at other sites throughout the country.

Ford worked with the Michigan Department of Transportation to ensure the high volume of trucks running in and out of the plant wouldn’t cause backups on Interstate 94 and other roads. Almost immediately after old equipment is ripped up and thrown in a scrap truck, a trailer full of new equipment is pulling up.

“It’s like very synchronized ‘Transformers’ dancing,” said Brian Kinnie, the assistant plant manager.

Starting Sept. 22, the two returning crews will begin making pre-production trucks.

Ford said the F-150 will go on sale in the fourth quarter of this year, but hasn’t given a specific date.

The automaker’s sprawling Dearborn Truck Plant hasn’t undergone this type of renovation since its opening in 2004. The changeover to the aluminum-bodied truck represents a $359 million investment.

“This is a very exciting time for us,” said Bruce Hettle, Ford’s head of North American manufacturing. “The level of planning that went into this is substantially deeper than our standard changeover.”

In addition to the plant changeover, the Ford Rouge Factory tour is closed, undergoing the first phase of a complete renovation that will eventually include new films, exhibits and hands-on experiences. The tour will reopen Sept. 22, with some minor cosmetic changes, but the new exhibits and other updates will be installed through the rest of the year.

“It’s a complete overhaul,” Hettle said. “It will be re-aligned for the technology on the new truck. It’s really a great tour.”

The shutdown has been two years in the making, Hettle said. It includes the calculated ramp-up of production of the 2014 F-150 to keep up with demand as the Dearborn site sits idle.

Kinnie said workers there have been working Saturdays and Sundays for the past six months, and have been running at record production levels in the paint, body and final assembly shops.

Ford’s Kansas City plant, which also makes the F-150, will undergo a similar shutdown in 2015, although it will take less time because of the experience gained from Dearborn’s downtime.

The new pickup represents a drastic shift: It will weigh about 700 pounds less than the current model and is expected to have significantly better gas mileage.

The F-150 represents 20 percent of Ford’s North American volume, and has been the best-selling truck for more than 30 years.

“These are some of the crown jewels of the company,” Hinrichs said. “We’ll make sure we take extra care and attention and make sure the truck is exactly where we want it to be.”

mmartinez@detroitnews.com

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