By G.R. Whale
At a recent Ford Commercial Truck event, PickupTrucks.com was among those given a detailed tour of the Dearborn Truck Plant where many Ford F-150s are built. This plant primarily builds the SuperCab and SuperCrew (the Kansas City plant does all 8-foot-bed F-150s), and after an hour and a half on the floor, I counted three regular cabs.
The Dearborn plant is part of the larger Rouge Complex, a 1,100-acre site made up of eight facilities, including steel, stamping, tool and die making, modular production/assembly and the Dearborn pickup assembly plant. It also has water access, rail, a fitness center, a 10.4-acre sustainable sedum-planted roof with honeybees and a water recycling system that keeps plant temperatures around 70 degrees. In 2003 the Rouge Complex was certified as a green building by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.
The first vehicle assembled here was a 1921 Fordson tractor. Other notable names include the Model A beginning in 1927, the 1954-57 Thunderbird and 1964-2004 Mustang.
Opening next year at the Dearborn Truck Plant is a personalization center where accessories like striping, bug deflectors and side steps may be “factory” options, and the Raptor will get final finish.
Beyond the machinery built there, the Rouge Complex is also known as the site of the Battle of the Overpass. On the afternoon of May 26, 1937, labor union organizers and Ford security guards known as “service men” under the direction of Harry Barrett fought on the overpass near Miller Road and the plant’s Gate 4. The union was campaigning for an $8 six-hour day when the current rate was $6. In today’s dollars that’s about $25 per hour and $12 per hour, respectively.
Ford didn’t approve of unions, and when two union organizers, Richard Frankensteen and Walter Reuther, posed on the overpass for a photo by Detroit News photographer James E. Kilpatrick, the service men came from behind and beat them and others handing out leaflets. Dearborn police believed this was a Ford issue and did not actively intervene.
The service men tried to acquire all the photos, but Kilpatrick hid the plates under the rear seat of his car and handed over blanks on the front seat. The photos appeared across the country, Kilpatrick’s work led to the Pulitzer Prize committee establishing a prize for photography, the National Labor Relations Board came down on Bennett and Ford, and the court of public opinion turned in favor of the union. Ford signed a contract with United Auto Workers in 1940.
The only time the Dearborn plant is not producing trucks is Saturday evening and Sunday morning. That time is used for maintenance, retooling and so on. There are three crews that work four-day 10-hour shifts. It takes 3,800 employees, at least 347 robots, 4.2 miles of conveyor belt and about 18 hours to build a truck, and a new truck is built every minute. The aim along the lines — five trims, one box build and one door build — is to finish a job in 40 seconds, with plenty of automation since there are 580,000 permutations of the F-150.
At the trim plant we visited, the tools record torque and quantity so that no fasteners get missed or improperly torqued. We wouldn’t call it quiet in there, and if we weren’t listening to a tour guide, we’d be wearing headphones like most of the people on the line. To ease the assembly process, the vehicles run on scissors-lift skillets on beechwood floors for working at the right height.
On the line, there are “marriage and divorce stations” because of all the separating and joining of parts and pieces. Since there’s a four-mile conveyor on a site much smaller, there’s a lot of up-and-down or side-to-side movement in various states of assembly. It seemed there could be a better solution, but it takes us 19 months to build a truck, not 19 hours.
The typical tour, many of which are done in conjunction with a visit to the Henry Ford museum, walks a one-third-mile elevated catwalk. Since we were ostensibly better behaved than the average grade schooler, we walked the trim section of the plant floor; we did not get to see the meat-and-potatoes underneath a truck. Follow along for some observations.
Status boards are found around the plant, and they remind us how much this place runs on acronyms. There’s no space-wasting “EcoBoost” here; that’s a “3.5GTDI” in production and engineering speak.
These automation station markers tell people what the computer already knows. Affectionately referred to as “cheese heads” (our pal Allyson Harwood, from Motor Trend's Truck Trend, thought “blue cheese” was more accurate).
This is how the cab arrives from paint. Note the woodwork floor, lifting skillet and door tabs.
Like a Transit Connect losing its seats and windows, the first operation removes the doors for safe keeping.
The cooling stack is installed as one assembly. It’s attached to the body, demonstrating that good cooling and body lifts don’t go together.
Dashboards arrive in one piece, and a fancy one with nav can weigh more than 100 pounds. That’s why a robot maneuvers it and two techs handle the installation.
This is how the chassis arrives. Note the front bumper is already attached — you can do that with a stiff-enough frame, and the 729 engine will read 6.2L when you open the hood.
There is no one around when the machinery marries an F-150 body to its chassis.
As with any circumstances involving more than one vehicle, the best place to leave the key is in the door, even if the door isn’t reattached to anything yet.
One of the quality control sections at the plant has completed trucks for special occasions; these three are expected to be at the Detroit auto show. No more handmade specials are needed.
This sticker is self-explanatory; what isn’t is why you would want to keep a Raptor inside.
The paint-check room at Quality Control. Don’t you wish you had one for used-truck shopping?
Final checks are carried out in the “garage” in the background. Trucks in front are waiting for shipping, mostly by rail.
Taken literally, this sign could stop the Dearborn Truck Plant. We respectfully suggest they should add a period after STOP.