DEARBORN, Mich. — Two things are missing in the body shop of the revamped Ford Rouge Center, which includes the Dearborn Truck assembly plant making the 2015 F-150 out of aluminum: sparks and noise.
They have been the hallmark of vehicle assembly for a century, especially in a good old-fashioned truck plant. But take away the steel body and replace much of the welding with rivets and adhesives, and you change the look, sound and feel of the plant and the work.
Ford invested $359 million to gut and redo the body shop at Dearborn Truck and another $484 million at the adjacent Dearborn Diversified, Stamping, and Tool & Die facilities to make parts. Both are now up and running. By the time the first production models were released for delivery to dealers in early November, the plant was running about 30 jobs an hour, ramping up to 60 jobs.
Another $1.1 billion is being spent at the second F-150 plant in Kansas City, Mo., which will close for about a month in the new year to transform its body shop. Joe Hinrichs, Ford president for the Americas, has said the second plant will be shipping trucks by the end of the first quarter to help fill the pipeline. It will take months for dealers to be well-stocked and many customers will not take delivery of their new pickup until February.
Plants usually have loud welding guns and systems to transfer parts but with little welding and new transfer systems at Dearborn Truck, the plant is quiet. "The first day employees were ecstatic," said Ron Ketelhut, chief engineer for body construction. "It was quiet."
No sparks also means no need for the protective fencing that keeps workers far back from the robots, giving the plant a more open and clean appearance. Suction cups move aluminum around the way that magnets and clamps used to transport steel.
The body shop has all new tooling, including 500 robots that are smaller, lighter and more efficient than their predecessors. There is some spot and laser welding in the plant but most of the truck is joined with adhesives and self-piercing rivets which use high speeds and pressure and do not need holes to pierce the metal.
A DIFFERENT WAY
While Ford is proud of its new joining techniques, General Motors has chosen a different path as it incorporates a mixed material strategy to take weight out of its vehicles.
"We are doing vehicles right now that are hundreds of pounds below the competition without going to complete aluminum vehicles," said Mark Reuss, president of General Motors North America.
GM is using a mix of steel, aluminum, carbon fiber and fiberglass in its vehicles. And it also developed a way to weld aluminum, which avoids the need to rip up the assembly plant.
"If we want to do aluminum, we will weld it," Reuss said, noting GM developed its patented process years ago and uses it for the frame of the Corvette, liftgates on large SUVs, decklids and doors on the Cadillac CTS. It also will be used for the structure of the new Cadillac CT6 flagship due next year that will weigh less than the smaller CTS.
"We will have the most advanced body structure in the world with that vehicle," he said of the CT6 to be made in high volumes at Detroit-Hamtramck.
Reuss, an engineer, said the ability to weld aluminum avoids the need for fasteners and ensures greater speed and quality.
"If it wasn't more efficient and stronger than a rivet, we'd be riveting," Reuss said. "It's a huge cost difference because you're adding a piece. You're inducing a pierce into aluminum. You're spinning it and you're hoping it joins everything together. That's the riveting process. With welding you come in there, you weld it, and you know it's good and you leave. That's a big difference."
Reuss said GM will rivet mixed materials but weld aluminum to aluminum. "The aluminum welding piece of it is revolutionary and we invented it."
Ford executives say they have kept costs down as they developed their own ways of joining aluminum.
A team led by Aindrea Campbell developed different types of rivets and die combinations for each part of the truck to pierce layers of aluminum of different alloys and thickness with the speed required on an assembly line.
At Dearborn Truck, the two sides of the truck are built up and loaded onto the underbody so the framing system can add the rivets and put the roof on.
"I feel like we're at Disney, it's so exciting," plant manager Brad Huff said of the framing station where rivets are loaded onto spools like the magazine of a gun for use by robots suspended from above to do the rapid self-piercing.
"What we are doing is not new to the industry, but the volume is," Ketelhut said.
By 2025, 18 percent of all vehicles will have all-aluminum bodies, compared with less than 1 percent now, according to Ducker Worldwide, which examines material trends.
At Ford's Dearborn Diversified, Stamping, and Tool & Die facilities, 700 people on three shifts now use hydroforming to shape parts such as roof rails out of aluminum. The parts used to be made of steel and the work done by a supplier, said plant manager Frank Piazza.
"We felt it was critical that we learn this expertise. It was necessary to bring it in-house," Piazza said. Work and training began two years ago.
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