The Rouge. Perhaps no two words have better expressed America's industrial might. Henry Ford's manufacturing mecca took in limestone and coal and iron ore at one end and turned out finished automobiles at the other. The earth's resources were converted to autos in four days, instead of 21 before.
This was the pinnacle of Ford's manufacturing miracle: mass production. And within that, a system called vertical integration was carried out to its fullest. Henry Ford controlled virtually everything that went into making the automobile.
Yet the Rouge mosaic is much richer than the threads of automobile production. It carries stories of the Ford family, the Roaring '20s, the heroic rise of the working class and the cold drama of international competition. Today, most of the complex has been sold off, yet the Rouge continues to roll.
There, in 1920, 2-year-old Henry Ford II, at his grandfather's knee, lit the ceremonial match to ignite the Rouge's huge new blast furnaces. Seventeen years later, in the Battle of the Overpass, henchman Harry Bennett and his thugs crushed Ford's reputation as a friend of the working man - and strengthened the spirit of Walter Reuther. After World War II, the future leaders of Toyota came to the Rouge - and decided there must be a better way.
The Rouge did everything that Highland Park did, and more. The Highland Park, Mich., plant, birthplace of the $5-a-day wage, had begun by buying parts from outside suppliers. But by 1915, Ford had brought more and more in house.
The move had its logic. Mass production had enabled Henry Ford to cut the cost of an automobile dramatically while paying his workers more. By building his own parts under the same principles, Ford could compound the savings.
Yet with Henry Ford, nothing was that simple. Historians tell us that the decision to build the Rouge was driven as much by demons inside him as anything else.
Ford distrusted suppliers. The planning of the Rouge took place while Ford was battling one of his biggest suppliers - and shareholders - the Dodge Brothers. John and Horace Dodge wanted dividends on their Ford stock. Henry Ford wanted to pour the money back into the business.
Ford lost the lawsuit. He paid the dividends and then bought out his stockholders, giving him total control of his com-pany.
By then, though, Ford was involved in a libel trial against the Chicago Tribune. Ford prevailed but at a cost: public humiliation, and a meager 6 cents in damages. Authors Peter Collier and David Horowitz say that case was the end of the sunny Henry Ford. Afterward, he turned inward to the one thing he could control completely: his company and its biggest project, the Rouge.
In 1915, Ford had seen the potential for the Rouge in 2,000 acres of marshland in Dearborn, Mich. In three years, production began in the B Building. In 1919, the coke plant opened. The next year, the sawmill and Blast Furnace A. By 1925, tractors and auto engines. In 1928, the Model A.
But the Rouge reached far beyond Dearborn. Ford had the Rouge River widened to carry freighters from the Detroit River, the Great Lakes and beyond. He bought railroads. He owned iron mines in Minnesota's Mesabi range and rubber plantations in Brazil. 'We have bought our own coalfields so that our supplies of coal might not be interrupted,' Ford wrote in his 1926 book, Today and Tomorrow. The reason: In 1922, a miners' dispute forced Ford to close for several days.
By one count in the 1920s, the Rouge complex included more than 90 buildings, 42,000 employees and 93 miles of railroad track. Another, in the 1950s, counted 81 miles of conveyors, 40,000 pieces of daily mail and 7,000 mops used per month.
'It was the greatest edifice of its kind in the world,' noted Ford family biographers Collier and Horowitz.
Author Robert Lacey described it as: 'a universal crucible, where raw materials entered at one end and finished cars came out at the other.'
And in The Reckoning, David Halberstam proclaimed it: 'the most awesomely integrated plant in industrial history.'
In 1953, Ford's 50-year company history declared: 'The rise of the mighty Rouge marks the transition of the company into strong and mature manhood.'
Indeed, by the 1950s, all the Western world's major automakers - from General Motors to Volkswagen - had long been disciples of mass production.
Norman Bodek, a productivity expert who reissued Ford's book Today and Tomorrow in 1988, writes of meeting Taiichi Ohno in 1980. What was your secret? Bodek asked Ohno, the famed creator of the Toyota production system.
The answer: Henry Ford's book. There he found the roots of such Toyota mainstays as just-in-time production, continuous improvement, walk-around management and the elimination of quality checks.
Ohno himself had been tapped 30 years earlier by Eiji Toyoda. In the spring of 1950, Toyoda, then a managing director, toured the Rouge. He viewed the trip as a pilgrimmage, himself a soulmate. Henry Ford, after all, was an engineer, a man who liked to roll up his sleeves and spend time on the factory floor. His company was a world powerhouse, building 8,000 vehicles a day. Toyota, nearly insolvent at the time, was struggling to build 40.
What Toyoda found, of course, was nothing like that. The factory had fallen into disrepair. New sheet metal disguised a chassis that had not been modernized since the war. Decades later, Henry Ford II would admit that Ford was selling junk at the time. The postwar hunger for cars was so strong, Ford could get away with it.
Toyoda's colleagues feared that he would return and tell them about an impending assault from the U.S. auto industry. Instead, he was confident. He would borrow the best ideas from the U.S. system. He would lift others from Toyota's textile business, where the company had been a world leader. And then he would adapt it all to Japanese conditions to create the famed Toyota production system.
The authors of The Machine That Changed the World called the process lean production. Its hallmarks: Parts delivered as they are needed. Less factory space. Shorter development times. Shared information with workers. Workers who can do a variety of tasks. The goal: zero defects.
In 1980, officials of Ford Motor Co., on the brink of insolvency, made a pilgrimmage to Japan to learn all about it. They visited their partner, Mazda Motor Corp., which had copied the Toyota system.
Thirteen years later, Ford would prove it had been an attentive student.
The team that developed the 1994 Mustang had worked under intense pressure. It had to develop the car in record time - and convince Chairman Red Poling that it could save enough to justify a $700*million investment in a low-volume car.
Team Mustang took its script from the Japanese and went to work. Engineers worked together for the good of the car, instead of their 'parts.' Supplier lists were pared, but each supplier got more trust. By reusing the old Mustang platform, Ford engineers imitated Honda and eliminated the costly shutdown at model changeover time. In the end, the team delivered the new car on time and within budget.
'The Mustang team had accomplished its mission,' wrote Paul Ingrassia and Joseph White in Comeback: The Fall & Rise of the American Automobile Industry. The team not only saved the Mustang. 'It proved that Ford could adapt ideas from Japan and Europe to produce the quintessential American car.'
The assembly site? The oldest in the Ford system.
David Versical is managing editor of Automotive News.