Every Worker Building Ford's Revolutionary F-150 Pickup Empowered To Make A Million-Dollar Decision - Idea Pipeline
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Every Worker Building Ford’s Revolutionary F-150 Pickup Empowered To Make A Million-Dollar Decision

Every Worker Building Ford’s Revolutionary F-150 Pickup Empowered To Make A Million-Dollar Decision

At the Dearborn, Michigan, manufacturing plant where Ford Motor (F) builds its revolutionary aluminum-bodied F-150 pickup truck, there are yellow ropes hanging near most every station on the serpentine 4.2-mile assembly line. Workers are instructed to yank the cord, stopping the line, if they see something amiss that might compromise the quality of the pickup, which is the nation’s best selling vehicle – and Ford’s singular profit machine.

It’s not an unusual arrangement. Most auto plants use a similar setup.

But at the Dearborn plant, the employee who pulls the rope has just made a particularly monumental decision.  An unscheduled pause of the F-150 line costs Ford a staggering $1 million per minute.

After that sinks in, consider this: Ford management encourages those million-dollar yanks of the yellow cord.

Ford's new-generation F-150 pickup on the assembly line in Dearborn, MI. Note the yellow cords above: pulling one instantly costs the company millions. (Courtesy Ford Motor)

Ford’s new-generation F-150 pickup on the assembly line in Dearborn, MI. Note the yellow cords above: pulling one instantly costs the company millions. (Courtesy Ford Motor)

The early weeks and months of any new model’s production typically are the most critical, as unforeseen kinks and conflicts are squeezed out of the production process or intrinsic engineering miscues are identified and remedied. For the 2015 F-150, which Ford started building in November, its startup phase has been abnormally scrutinized because of the high-stakes gamble the company took on making the best-selling F-150 the first-ever pickup to use an all-aluminum body.

See, manufacturing engineers are loathe to incorporate even minor changes or tweaks to the assembly line, as each necessitates rewriting pages of the decades-old playbook of how to build cars. More pointedly, every untested new material, process or component introduces the potential for problems that aren’t realized until manufacturing has started in earnest – and those kinds of hiccups are anathema to automotive mass-production.

For the 2015 F-150, switching its body to weight-saving aluminum wasn’t a matter of a few changes here and there. It necessitated an extensive rip-up of the F-150’s manufacturing process, vastly expanding the probability for those expensive hiccups – everywhere.

That’s why those yellow cords are so important, says Cynthia Jones, a card-carrying anthropologist who helped design the novel Visitor Experience facility and tour at the historic Ford Rouge Center where the Dearborn Truck Plant is located.

“We want employees to take the initiative (in identifying production issues),” Jones says. “And they do.”

The cost of stopping the F-150 line is eye-popping, to be sure, but identifying and solving issues at that juncture is vastly preferable to the cost of addressing a problem after tens of thousands of trucks have been built and possibly reached customers, Jones says.

Ford’s surely quantified how many multi-million-dollar yanks of the yellow cord have happened since full-scale production of the all-new F-150 started; Jones wasn’t telling, but you can bet it’s probably been a few: Ford sold 25,000 fewer F-150s in the second quarter and the company admitted it has been scrambling most of this year to build enough of the new-generation F-150s to supply dealers with adequate supply – and to prevent bitter rivals General Motors and FiatChrysler Automotive’s Ram (sometimes wielding five-figure incentives on their pickups) from stealing Ford “intenders” unable to find the new F-150.

Manufacturing challenges aside (Ford also recently announced it has enlisted a second company to help assure supply of the F-150’s steel frame), Ford is not backing off from the aluminum bet. Soon, aluminum-bodied versions of the F-150’s larger, commercially-oriented “Super Duty” counterpart will go on sale. Most analysts assume those models to deliver even more profit than the F-150, which itself has been speculated to generate $10,000 or more in profit per vehicle.

Super Duty buyers, which include large-volume fleets, are even tougher customers, as they depend on the pickups for their livelihood. So the yanking of those yellow cords is likely to continue: Ford knows the company more or less is riding on getting it right. The F-Series line has been America’s best-selling vehicle line for 33 consecutive years and is responsible for the lion’s share of the Ford’s total profits.

“Ford took a big risk to do the F-150 in aluminum, but they’re confident with what they’ve got,” Bernie McGinn, CEO of McGinn Investment Management in Alexandria, Virginia, told Bloomberg in April. “We’ll see over the next year how that works out for sure. There has been some uncertainty.”

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