By Julia Halewicz
Last year on the Friday before Labor Day, the 2014 Ford F-150 pickup truck came off the Dearborn assembly line for the last time.
After the last seam was welded, the F-150 that had been so beloved by American consumers would begin the transition from traditional steel manufacturing to an aluminum-alloy body. And the second phase of Ford’s 2007 blueprint for sustainability would begin; jobs would be created, and Ford would deliver a stronger product to its consumers.
It was a moment Ford would call the biggest in the company’s 111-year history.
For some, the change was almost unfathomable. How could a truck be made with aluminum-alloy, and why change what clearly was working very well for the company?
“We have a saying at Ford that leaders lead,” said Doug Scott, the truck group marketing manager. “This was an ideal product to make with aluminum-alloy, because light weighting made so much sense for a truck, because the extent to which you could take weight out of a truck, you could add more value to the customer in terms of more towing, more payload, more durability, more efficiency − so again all this required us to be out in front further out in front that we normally would be to make sure that we would deliver on all those expectations.”
“We didn’t want to shut Detroit down,” said Bruce Hettle, vice president of manufacturing and 28-year Ford veteran, whose group would ultimately be responsible for determining the new assembly line process and the company’s ability to deliver the vehicle.
Traffic lights were added to direct the flow of traffic, and Southeast Dearborn braced itself for the change, although it felt like the auto industry braced itself as well. Detroit was buzzing.
It took four weeks to convert the Dearborn Truck Plant. The steel body shop was removed. Old robots were taken away and 700 new ones designed to work with aluminum manufacturing process had replaced them. A new process was put into place for stamping aluminum, and it was a mammoth undertaking for all involved.
The moment would become a milestone in the Ford Motor Company’s history. The company has invested $359 million at the Dearborn Truck Plant, part of a commitment to invest $6.2 billion in plant-specific investments through 2015.
“The elimination of the welding has improved the working environment. The plant is cleaner; there is no welding slag, no sparks. The environment is bright, wide open and quieter. The working environment is fantastic and the workforce absolutely loves it.”
And the workforce has grown exponentially as aluminum truck production ramps up. Approximately 850 jobs were added to The Ford Rouge Center site. Skilled trades employees, electricians and specialists received eight weeks of technology training to master the new manufacturing process.
They coexist with approximately 500 new body shop robots and another 200 robots at the subassembly and stamping operations. “We’ve spent a lot of time thinking through what’s the right balance of a robot and a human, or an operator or team members. We think we have the right balance. Our teams are in there to help ensure quality and to make the judgment and the decisions appropriate to help ensure quality. But we use the robots to do the heavy work, the riveting and the part movement. We think we’ve got a great balance. We don’t see a world where auto plants will be all machines without people,” he said.
Since the truck has gone into production, along with the new robots, 1,550 new jobs across four plants were announced as well as pay raises for 500 entry-level union employees.
With the first of the new aluminum-alloy body Ford F-150 pickups already in market, the consumer is feeling the benefits. “We’ve improved the power-to-weight ratio from 5 to 16 percent, depending on the powertrain,” says Scott. “So the truck accelerates faster. It brakes in a shorter distance. It’s a more durable truck. Aluminum is one-third the density of steel, so consequently we can thicken up gage the metal in all the surfaces that count . . . in the bed and in the fenders.”
Aluminum made all of this possible. Pete Friedman, who has worked at Ford more than 18 years, is the manager of the manufacturing research department and helped lead the change.
The auto industry has been researching aluminum for more than 30 years and says the technology and materials were finally ready for the level of mass production required by Ford.
“Alloys have evolved a lot,” he said. “We’ve gotten better aluminum alloys, higher strength, more formable, more joinable. So on top of that, body construction methods have gotten much better. Our ability to join and create very strong, stiff structures from aluminum has improved drastically over time.”
While the technology was ready, Ford needed to determine if the public were just as ready, since aluminum had a reputation for being easily deformed. “Making parallels to how aluminum is used in aerospace and in the defense industry—I think really helped build that confidence,” said Friedman.
“Some of the aluminum-alloys we are using can be heat treated after stamping to dramatically increase material strength. This increase in strength allows for thinner panels without giving up load carrying capacity which reduces overall weight.
The density of aluminum is approximately one-third that of steel so it allows us to use thicker panels than steel and still save significant weight.”
But the change required more than a vision – it also required a larger supply of aluminum sheet than what was available. So Ford worked with Alcoa and Novelis, rebuilding both suppliers’ infrastructure to accommodate the increased demand for auto-grade alloys and to manage the scrap stream.
“It took a lot of trust,” Friedman said.
Friedman likens the materials’ change to a seismic shift in vehicle manufacturing on the F-150, similar to when cars went from frame to unibody construction. But the most visceral connection he has with the vehicle is that the aluminum panels will never red rust again. One of the original prototypes operates at the plant and has a huge gouge on the side. The three-year-old vehicle has withstood as many Michigan winters and still no rust has formed.
“Red rust on a pickup truck is such a symbolic thing for me about manufacturing in America and not to see that–basically to see a problem solved–is such a visceral connection for me,” said Friedman.
“I think this is the tipping point for how cars and trucks are made,” said Friedman.
Julia Halewicz is a senior editor with AOL’s Custom Solutions Group. She holds a Masters in Journalism from NYU and has spent her career as an editor of various newspapers, magazines and digital outlets.
Photography and videography by Man Made Content