DETROIT -- These are scary times at Ford Motor Co. as workers rip out the body shop at the company's 2.6-million-square-foot Dearborn, Mich., truck plant and replace it with a radically different one.
By converting its best-selling F-150 pickup from a steel body to aluminum, Ford is replacing the tried-and-true spot-welding process with a far more complex technique that uses a combination of rivets and industrial adhesives.
It's a huge undertaking, loaded with risk, and even with Ford's intense preparations, some wonder if the automaker is overconfident.
"We believe we're ready," said manufacturing whiz Joe Hinrichs, Ford's president of the Americas.
But as AutoPacific analyst Dave Sullivan says: "Nobody's riveted and glued at this speed yet. That's the big unknown."
Ford developed the process when it owned Jaguar Land Rover, which uses a variation of the system to build luxury aluminum-body vehicles such as the Range Rover and Jaguar F-Type in the United Kingdom. But those English factories don't approach the line speeds Ford must hit with its most profitable vehicle -- 60 jobs an hour.
"We really believe in the product and its execution," Hinrichs said in an interview.
At the same time, he admits that Ford has little margin for error.
"There's not a lot of buffer, trust me. Because every day we don't build F-150s means a lot," says Hinrichs. "No one has been given a lot of extra time. We have laid this out hour by hour, day by day. We have all the company's resources at our disposal. There's nothing more important than this."
Ford doesn't disclose how much it makes on every F-150. Some analysts have put the figure as high as $10,000 per F-150, depending on trim level.
Ford has told dealers that the factory will crank out enough F-150s to supply dealers by year end. Retail orders will begin arriving in February, the company told dealers in an August memo.
Ford has struggled with several recent launches -- notably the 2013 Ford Escape, 2013 Ford Fusion and 2013 Lincoln MKZ -- which were much less complex than the massive F-150 changeover. As if the F-150 wasn't enough, Ford is in the middle of the biggest launch year in its history -- 16 vehicles in the United States and 23 worldwide. Among those is the redesigned 2015 Mustang, which started production at the end of August.
Ford has been testing its system by building test bodies for a year at three locations in southeast Michigan. The machinery used in the test builds was disassembled and shipped to the Dearborn plant, where it is being installed. Ford executives have been test driving a fleet of 250 preproduction F-150s.