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Rouge plant's retooled tour is wild ride

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Dearborn — In the span of four months, the newly renovated Ford Rouge Factory Tour, a popular visitor attraction at The Henry Ford, has been transformed into a high-tech multisensory experience.

The biggest difference is a new nine-minute video about Ford Motor Co.'s aluminum-bodied F-150 shown in an all-new Manufacturing Innovation Theater — and reminiscent of a "Fast & Furious" action film. The film precedes a tour along catwalks above the assembly line floor.

Visitors feel the methodical thuds as stamping machines pound aluminum sheets into the panels that form the new pickup. They experience a rush of wind as a virtual truck — made with lasers and 3D mapping projectors — races toward them across a desert landscape. Seats vibrate as the truck is shaken during durability tests.

LED lights pulsate from the floors as two real working factory robots whirl and spin around the virtual pickup as they simulate its paint job and construction process.

"When we got to talking, the goal was to make something absolutely exceptional and a big wow for visitors," said Christian Lachel, executive director at California-based BRC Imagination Arts, the design firm that created the film. "We really put together something special; I don't think we left anything on the table."

The 100-seat theater is surrounded by seven big-screen panels that show intimate details of the truck's creation. BRC was able to place small video cameras on stamping presses and robots and get inside the paint shop and body floor of Ford's Dearborn Truck Plant — access that's rarely granted to outsiders — to see exactly how the pickup is put together.

"We take you inside the process and through the process," said Cynthia Jones, general manager of the factory tour. "We asked, how can we make this mind-blowing?"

The team at BRC intentionally used few words to tell the truck's story, relying instead on vibrations, lights and other noises to resonate with a wide swath of viewers. The two robots are silent, but light up and wave at guests as the movie ends.

The multisensory approach worked: Since the tour reopened — the makeover cost $4.7 million — a group of deaf students came by and were enthralled with the experience because they could see and feel it.

"That was one of those moments you don't get very often," Jones said. "It's why we do what we do."

Other changes to the popular tour — it has hosted more than a million visitors since opening a decade ago — include three new minutes of video, narrated by Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr., about the history of the Rouge complex, whose construction was completed by 1928. There are new hands-on displays with historical videos, photos, maps and even driving songs.

And, near the tour gift shop, there's a blue prototype F-150 (No. 137) that visitors can explore. It will be replaced soon with a production model, Jones said.

Ford's Dearborn Truck Plant underwent a massive overhaul to be able to build the pickup. Last August, about 1,500 employees ripped up robots, dismantled old conveyors and installed all new equipment. The work included 1,100 trailers hauling out the old scrap and bringing in the new equipment around the clock. The entire process was complete in four weeks.

The Factory Tour faced a similar deadline. Redesigning a tour of this magnitude normally takes two years, Jones said, but the team was able to quietly reopen it in November and start hosting international visitors around the time of the auto show.

"It was hectic, it was fast, it was fun," Jones said. "Whenever you do something that compressed there's a pressure to it that you can either feel weighed down by or feel is really awesome and be buoyed up by, and BRC responded perfectly."

The film crew had tight deadlines in which to film inside the plant, Lachel said. Once the footage was shot, the crew rented rooms at the nearby Henry hotel to create a makeshift film studio.

"They did whatever it took to get the project done," Jones said.

Veterans of the tour will notice that some parts haven't changed; a display of historic vehicles — including a Model A, Ford V8 Victoria, 1949 Ford Coupe, 1956 Ford Thunderbird and 1965 Mustang — was kept intact. Visitors can still access the Rouge's observation deck to see the plant's "living" roof of sedum plants, and they can still observe real trucks being built, although the process and machinery have changed.

"We really hope you see the new process," Jones said. "We really hope you see how much high-tech work and equipment and thought goes into how you build a truck."

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About the Ford Rouge Factory Tour

Ford Rouge Factory Tour is a self-guided, five-part experience that includes: Legacy Theater (13 minutes), Manufacturing Innovation Theater (10 minutes), Observation Deck (5-15 minutes), Dearborn Truck Plant (30-45 minutes) and the Legacy Gallery. Theater seating is limited to 100 guests per show; shows run continuously until 4 p.m. and are seated on a first-come, first-served basis.

General admission

■Adult: $16

■Youth: $12

■Senior: $14.50

■Children 2 and under: Free

Note: Prices lower for The Henry Ford members


Public tours begin at The Henry Ford with buses departing for the factory tour every 20 minutes from 9:20 a.m.-3 p.m. The last bus returns to The Henry Ford at 5 p.m.