First aluminum-bodied F-150 rolls off assembly line

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Dearborn — Shortly before 10:45 a.m. Tuesday, Dearborn Truck plant manager Brad Huff and UAW Vice President Jimmy Settles drove the first 2015 F-150 pickup — painted cherry red — off the assembly line and into history.

Ford Motor Co.'s newest truck, made with an aluminum body and bed that saves up to 700 pounds, marks a significant milestone for the Dearborn automaker and is a potential game-changer for the industry. The launch completes at least five years of research and development as Ford overhauled nearly every aspect of the building process from exterior painting to interior design.

The lightweight material is expected to increase gas mileage, but is more costly to make and repair — a big gamble for Ford's best-selling vehicle. The launch also marks a rebirth for the Dearborn Truck Plant, centerpiece of the venerable Rouge Center that was nearly shuttered before finding new life to build the truck. The plant underwent a $359 million dollar renovation this year.

"This really is the most critical launch in Ford's history, and arguably one of the most critical launches for the entire industry," Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said in a statement. "If it goes according to plan, Ford will have a substantial advantage in the area of lightweight materials. If any serious problems arise, it will put a major crimp in Ford's near-term profits, though it's hard to believe the automaker didn't account for every variable before committing to this transition."

The Dearborn automaker is currently making about 30 new trucks per hour, Huff told reporters Tuesday. When the plant runs at full capacity, that number should more than double, he said. The new trucks will begin arriving in showrooms next month.

Mileage numbers have not yet been released, but analysts expect significant improvements. The base price is about $26,600, up about $400 from the previous generation.

"We're here today to make history," executive chairman Bill Ford said as hundreds of workers cheered. "The Rouge has always been at the heart of Ford to me and my family."

The lightweight body sits above a high-strength steel frame that allows the truck to tow 1,100 more pounds and haul up to 530 more pounds than previous models.

"This is as big as it gets at Ford Motor Co.," said President and CEO Mark Fields.

"It underscores the product excellence and innovation we are delivering in every part of our business as we accelerate our pace of progress toward profitable growth."

Ford's Dearborn plant shuttered for a month this year as old equipment was torn out and new machinery was installed. A similar changeover will take place early next year at the automaker's Kansas City Assembly Plant.

The two plants will have the capacity to make more than 700,000 trucks per year, Ford said, slightly more than its previous capacity.

During the month that Dearborn Truck was closed for the changeover, Ford lost out on production of about 90,000 vehicles. Fields told reporters Tuesday production won't be back up to normal levels until the end of the second quarter next year.

The plant transformation is obvious. Gone are the spark-producing weld guns and noisy transfer systems that moved parts around.

The new body shop is much quieter and more efficient, using about 500 smaller robots to laser-weld and put rivets into the aluminum parts.

"When we walked in on the first day, it was quiet, it was clean, but there was no shock," said Ron Ketelhut, chief engineer for body construction. "It's been challenging, but it wasn't anything we hadn't planned for."

Dearborn Diversified, a 900,000-square-foot facility built in 1942, was also transformed to house the production of aluminum F-150 roof rails, a process that had previously been built by an outside supplier.

As part of the launch, Ford added 850 new workers across four facilities at its Rouge Center.

In recent months, Ford executives have stressed that the introduction was on schedule, but some analysts remain skeptical. Morgan Stanley last month lowered its price targets on Ford from $16 to $14, citing potential issues with the F-150 launch.

But Ford said it's encouraged by early customer feedback. The automaker said more than 225,000 people have submitted contact information for updates about the vehicle, and more than 250,000 customers have built and priced their own custom truck online — the most of any vehicle in the automaker's history.

"We recognize that is the most-watched launch in the industry right now," Raj Nair, Ford's chief technical officer, global product development, said at an event Monday. "Everyone's really interested whether we can launch this groundbreaking truck with quality our truck customers demand. We know the importance of getting the F-150 right."

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