The first Ford Motor Co. plant west of the Mississippi has occupied a unique position from the early days of the automobile and continues to be a model of innovation, flexibility and union-management cooperation. It was cited in the most recent Harbour Report for its productivity in building the Contour and Mystique - cars recently dropped, ironically, in favor of a new series of small sport-utilities.
Plant manager Dave Savchetz spent several years in Detroit determining the best ways for Ford to take the lead in manufacturing excellence. In 1995, he was assigned to the team that refined the Ford Production System. Then he traveled around plants for 14 months selling that system. Now Ford has decided to make him prove his theories, putting him in charge of the versatile truck plant in Claycomo, Mo., a Kansas City suburb.
Kansas City had its roots in transportation. The conflux of several major rivers made the area a crossroads, and when local businessmen had the foresight in 1869 to build a rail and wagon bridge across the Missouri River, the area became the dominant distribution center.
When Ford looked for a central location to set up its first remote assembly plant, Kansas City was the logical choice. The Winchester Avenue plant was started in 1909, and produced 2.4 million cars and trucks before being replaced.
During World War II, Winchester built truck parts and cylinders for Pratt & Whitney aircraft engines.
Ford moved to the Claycomo plant in 1956. Since then, the plant has built various cars and was expanded to include a separate production line for the F-series pickup. Ford has just changed over the Contour and Mystique line to produce small Escape, Tribute and Maverick sport-utilities that are being exported to 62 countries.
With these three new sport-utilities added to the four F-series truck variants planned (Super Cab, SuperCrew, Blackwood and Harley-Davidson SuperCrew), this plant will produce seven different models. There also are bi-fuel (propane-gasoline) F-150s, and a hybrid version of the Escape has been announced.
Claycomo has long been a showcase plant for Ford, and management has had a good relationship with the work force - a factor mentioned by management that enables the plant to pioneer so many innovations.
Plant operations are divided into three work groups: body, paint and final assembly, duplicated in the truck and car lines. Plant Engineering supports the production groups and is the seventh major work group. Each work group has a leader and a recorder and holds meetings to resolve issues.
A product specialist is assigned to each operation to plan and organize the equipment, tools, materials and procedures for each assembly job. The specialist sets up the line and monitors safety aspects.
Product specialists are selected from the work force through a bid process administered in conjunction with the UAW. The union works with management and has allowed deviations from seniority.
Launch Coordinator Wayne Campbell said, 'Our product specialists were the major element of the product launch, coordinating with vendors, suppliers and Mazda personnel, then training the workers during the shutdown. They act as the principal liaison between the work groups and the launch teams.' The four-year launch for the new small sport-utilities involved 400 people from most Ford worldwide operations. Most of the product specialists spent time in Japan, and their counterparts came to Claycomo to coordinate operations.
The result was more than 10,000 improvements that were studied and implemented.
By making these improvements, Claycomo reduced operations on the trim lines, cutting out 200 feet of conveyor. This is the reverse of the usual experience. By reducing conveyors, Campbell points out that not only are maintenance costs reduced, but safety is improved.
One suggestion resulted in a fixture that changed the installation of the Escape moonroof from an awkward four-person job to a simple one-person process.
Claycomo production specialists, working with vendors, have developed ways to set up pilot operations duplicating the final line in vendor warehouses to test operations. They test the prototype in the vendor's shop, then move it to the plant for certification.
Campbell says the emphasis is on flexibility. Claycomo's plant engineers have developed a system of modular locating pins to enable tooling to be quickly changed, retaining their indexing. This has been used to change worn tools or change between different model versions or operations, and has been cited as one of the reasons for the plant's leading productivity.
Claycomo trains union workers as product specialists who then serve as a link between plant engineers and production personnel.
Using hourly personnel as trainers keeps cost down because it avoids contracting and travel inefficiencies and gives workers direct and frequent contact with trainers.
Claycomo is producing all of the left-hand-drive vehicles, and the Mazda Hofu plant builds the right-hand-drive versions. Despite the common design, the operations have little in common, mainly because of cultural and volume differences.
Claycomo was the first Ford plant to adopt automation on a large scale. The body shop alone has 340 robots - a long way from the single Unimate robot tested there in 1970.
Savchetz says he is committed to a 'go-see' policy and spends each morning between 8: 30 and 11: 30 walking the floor, visiting areas with the most critical issues. 'This shows the workers that the top management focuses on the smallest item,' points out launch coordinator Campbell, 'and they know he has interest in every detail.
'He sits in with work groups on a rotating basis. Dave says safety, quality, delivery, cost and morale are the keystones of the effort, with the first two top and primary. Once they are addressed, the others usually follow.' M
Bob Storck is a free-lance writer in Kansas City, Mo.