Ford ups Expedition production again at Louisville

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News
Ford plans to up production at its Louisville Truck Plant again.

Thirteen months after Ford Motor Co. announced it would spend $25 million at its Kentucky Truck Plant to boost Expedition and Lincoln Navigator production there, the automaker said it's making more moves in Louisville to build more big SUVs.

And it's launching a new ad campaign to help sell the hulking vehicles.

The Dearborn-based automaker plans to increase production 20 percent starting in July after the plant's summer shutdown. The 8,100 employees there will be joined by 550 Ford employees from the company's Louisville Assembly Plant about 20 miles southwest, where Ford currently builds Escape and Lincoln MKC crossovers.

Ford made 75,826 Expeditions and 24,537 Navigators in 2018. It saw fleet and retail sales for those models rise 5 percent and 70 percent, respectively, last year. The Expedition sat on dealer lots for 48 days on average last year — up from seven days a year prior. But Ford officials say they still aren't meeting demand for the full-size SUVs.

"This is the second time that we've announced that we're going up 20 percent," said John Savona, Ford vice president of North American manufacturing. "The marketing team came back to us and said 'We need another 20 percent.' We have strong demand for the new Expedition."

In 2017, the Kentucky Truck Plant averaged 1,000 vehicles per day. Crews assemble the SUVs as well as Super Duty pickups there. Through 2018 and into 2019, Savona and others were forced to get creative to boost production at the plant, because they don't have much room for an actual expansion of the floor plan. In 2018, it was operating at roughly 102 percent of its total capacity, according to data from LMC Automotive. 

Savona and his teams had to figure out ways to get the line moving quicker and more efficiently. Assembly teams now work in tiers on portions of the line, with some working on the top of the vehicle, and others working underneath from lowered platforms. Savona's teams modified 80 percent of the work stations along the line, he said, and spent the $25 million announced last year to install a "door-line" that affixes the doors on the SUVs after most of work inside the vehicle is finished.

All those changes save time, Savona said. Last February, Joe Hinrichs, Ford president of global operations, said during a media trip to the Kentucky Truck plant that "every tenth of a second matters" to the bottom line at that plant.

The plant runs 24 hours a day, six days a week, with one 24-hour period of scheduled downtime on the weekend. The revenue generated from this plant alone would technically qualify it as a Fortune 500 company. It's one of Ford's most profitable and most important plants, and one of the company's highest-volume plants.

But the Expedition and Navigator are making up for a decade-long stretch in which neither SUV saw an overhaul. That allowed General Motors Co. to grab full-size SUV market share with its Chevrolet Suburban and Tahoe, and the GMC Yukon. Ford's Expedition had 17.5 percent market share in 2018 compared to the 44 percent owned by Chevy and 26 percent owned by GMC. 

Ford saw its market share increase in 2018 from 11.9 percent in 2017, but Savona and Matt Van Dyke, Ford director of U.S. marketing, said they see a lot of room for improvement.

"We're really just trying to match to demand," said Van Dyke. "We can increase market share considerably."

Van Dyke and Savona said they would have grown market share more last year had the automaker been able to build more vehicles. The latest push will be accompanied by an ad campaign focusing on what Ford sees as the Expedition's biggest selling points: more torque, more towing capability, more cargo space, better gas mileage and more second- and third-row legroom than the competition. 

The campaign, tagged "Better Big," focuses on how Ford's biggest SUVs "out-big" the competition. Voiced by actor Bryan Cranston, the ads launched on television and online Monday night. 

Meantime, the Louisville plant needs to be retooled to build the next-generation Escape and MKC, expected to debut this year. The automaker said in November that Louisville would move to a two-shift schedule this spring as the automaker winds down production of the old Escape and MKC models. Savona declined to say whether Ford would add any jobs at the Louisville plant to build Escapes once the plant is running. 

Ford hasn't ruled out another production increase at its Kentucky plant. The automaker wants to sell as many of the highly profitable family-haulers as possible.

"It took a lot of creativity to do the first one and more creativity to do the second one," Savona said. "I would never say we're at max capacity, because if there's customer demand, we're going to go back to the team at Kentucky Truck and say we need more and we're going to figure out how to solve it."

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau