Ford takes assembly flexibility to the limit with Focus

  • 16-Dec-2011 08:49 EST

A Focus EV comes down assembly line at the Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, MI. Preceding and following cars could have any one of five possible powertrain types.

A Ford Focus is coming down the line at the Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne (Detroit), where large trucks and SUVs were built for many years. That’s no surprise, because tightening fuel-economy regulations have dictated product changeovers at many plants.

However, in this case there’s a question: what kind of Focus?

Although the answer would have been a single gasoline engine version through most of 2011, as of late 2011 it could be that version or a Focus electric vehicle (EV). And before 2012 is up, the answer could be any one of five very different types: a Focus with either of two gasoline engines (a standard 2.0-L naturally aspirated four-cylinder or an optional 2.0-L Ecoboost turbo), the Focus EV, or one of two Focus hybrid variants (the C-Max compact crossover hybrid or the C-Max plug-in hybrid).

The reworked plant, involving an investment of about $550 million, represents a new Ford standard for production flexibility. The ability to make variants of a basic model isn’t new, but allowing for so many fundamentally different ones is an achievement. There is no special work shift where an accumulated order sheet for one variant is filled. And there are no shunt loops for major differences. Every Focus variant comes down the same assembly line and each station is ready with the right parts and the right steps for the particular variant that presents itself.

“A flexible plant means we can make small cars here profitably,” said John Fleming, Ford Executive Vice President of Global Manufacturing.

The transformation of the plant was begun with the creation of a virtual manufacturing system on computer screens. All tooling and production steps were computer-evaluated, so the manufacturing engineers could see exactly how the variants could be assembled sequentially.

A number of the stations are multifunctional as a result. For example, the one where a gasoline tank is installed for the gasoline variant is also where the battery charger is installed for the EV variant. The equipment for the station is designed (and the workers are trained) to multitask.

At another workstation, the lower part of the two-section lithium-ion battery pack is installed in the EV; for the gasoline variant, it's where the exhaust system is fitted. In multivariant workstations, additional capability will be installed to accommodate the hybrid and plug-in hybrid C-Max. The hybrid is scheduled for mid-2012 introduction, the plug-in hybrid for the third or fourth quarter 2012. The Focus EV was slated for a late 2011 introduction.

The lower Li-ion battery pack section plugs into the upper one and the 12-volt battery, which is used for several accessories. The lower section constitutes 53% of the 23 kW·h capacity of the Li-ion battery system. Because the two pack sections are charged to the same level, they are a matched pair and have matching decals that the assembly line workers scan to ensure they have the correct parts.

The packs are assembled at the Rawsonville Plant in Ypsilanti, MI—work that was originally to be done by Mexican and Chinese suppliers and has just been taken in-house. Electric transaxles, which had been imported from Japan, are now Ford’s own components and are being made at the Ford Van Dyke Transmission Plant in Sterling Heights, MI.

Although the C-Max has been built in Saarlouis, Germany, since 2003, that experience was of limited value to Ford for the design of the Wayne plant. At this point, the intent is to produce only gasoline-fueled hybrid C-Max models in Wayne, whereas the German plant builds models with gasoline and diesel engines. Saarlouis will be redone to equal the flexibility of the system at Wayne.

The forthcoming C-Max hybrids are aimed at the Toyota Prius V, a wagon/crossover with an EPA fuel economy rating of 42 mpg combined (44 city, 40 highway), which Ford said the C-Max hybrid will surpass. Although Ford has not yet announced the all-electric range of the plug-in version, it has said total range will be 500 mi (800 km) including the tank of gas, and that this number will be greater than that of the Prius plug-in or Chevrolet Volt.

The Focus EV has a range of approximately 100 mi (160 km) on its 23 kW·h battery pack and is priced at $39,995, not including federal or state tax credits. Its fuel-economy rating is 100 mpg-e (electric drive equivalent). The car will be sold in New York/New Jersey and California, with markets being added as production ramps up.

The Wayne plant has 3300 hourly employees for two shifts and is producing cars at a rate of over 50/h.

Environmentally friendly processes are being used throughout. The paint system applies three layers one after another, while they’re still wet. This not only saves time but also eliminates the need for heating, which Ford says is saving about $3 million annually in natural gas and electricity. The paints are high-solid formulations, and the wet system was tested (and durability proved) in a test fleet of production Econolines. The Focus represents the first U.S. mass-production application. Ford also is working to install the system at plants in Mexico, India, Romania, and China.

The seating materials are made with Repreve polyester yarn, a material produced from waste (such as plastic soda bottles) by Unifi Inc.

A 500-kW solar panel system contributes renewable energy to run the Wayne plant. Parts deliveries through the 1.2 million ft2 (110,000 m2) plant are made by electric-drive trucks, which recharge at 10 electric charging stations at the facility.

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