Ford spending $50M in Chicago to support Explorer, Aviator production

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Ford Motor Co. is planning to invest another $50 million in its Chicago operations to fund the new models of its profit-rich Explorer SUVs.

The automaker plans to spend the additional money and convert 450 temporary employees from its Chicago Assembly and Chicago Stamping plants to full-time employees at a new supplemental facility less than a mile away from those plants, Joe Hinrichs, Ford president of automotive, told The Detroit News Monday.

The body shop at Chicago Assembly Plant is all-new, home to 600 new robots and the latest manufacturing technologies.

The move comes as the Dearborn automaker is in the beginning stages of national contract talks with the United Auto Workers. Among the union's goals: reaching an understanding with Ford that would result in converting more temporary workers to full-time, dues-paying members.

Ford's plan would transform a 200,000-square-foot Ford "modification center" into a "mini line" that would handle final assembly of the hybrid variants of the Ford Explorer and Lincoln Aviator, as well as the hybrid police interceptor SUV. It would allow the main lines in Chicago to crank out more internal combustion engine models of those products, add capacity for the niche models, and help the automaker meet demand for the highly-profitable vehicles.

"We're seeing strong demand for the product and we want to get them to consumers faster," Hinrichs said. "We have demand for more volume for the product."

The redesigned models, sporting a new sleek, tapered design, move to a new rear-wheel-drive platform expected to give the SUVs better performance. While the Aviator is returning to the Lincoln lineup for the first time in years, the Explorer has consistently been a best-selling vehicle and iconic nameplate for Ford.

Getting the more new models to dealer lots would allow the automaker to grab higher-margin sales quickly as sales slow after record years in the U.S. Added Hinrichs: "These are really very important products for us." 

Ebony Atkins-Conner, Ford employee, installs the engine on the all-new 2020 Ford Explorer at Chicago Assembly Plant.

Ford expects to finish the mini line conversion in the fourth quarter of this year. The automaker plans to hire temporary workers at the other Chicago facilities to replace those hired for full-time work at the new line.

The investment announced Monday supplements the $1 billion announced for Chicago earlier this year. That investment was planned as part of the 2015 contract negotiations with the UAW. As part of the 2015 contract, Ford said it would invest $900 million at Chicago Assembly. 

The automaker plans to add 500 jobs at its Chicago Assembly plant and Chicago Stamping plant to build the all-new Ford Explorer, the all-new Police Interceptor Utility and the all-new Lincoln Aviator. The Explorer and Aviator will have hybrid variants, and the Explorer will be offered in an ST performance trim.

Ford's Chicago Assembly plant began making vehicles in 1924, when Ford built the Model T there.

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau