DEARBORN -- When Ford Motor Co. transformed the body shop at its Dearborn truck plant in Michigan from making the F-150 pickup body from steel to aluminum, it had a major beneficial effect on Ron Ketelhut’s wardrobe budget.
Now that there are no longer any big robot-mounted welding guns throwing off showers of sparks, Ketelhut doesn’t have to worry about getting burn holes in his shirts as he walks the body shop floor.
“I have a lot of holey white shirts,” laughs Ketelhut, chief engineer for body construction at the Dearborn Truck Plant. Ketelhut guided journalists on a tour of the rebuilt body shop as part of ceremonies Tuesday marking production of the first 2015 F-150.
The absence of welding sparks is just one of the positive changes Ketelhut and other employees have noticed since Ford converted the plant in a ten-week operation this fall. The company spent $359 million to convert the Dearborn truck plant and an additional $484 million to convert nearby stamping and diversified operations on the legendary Rouge site where Henry Ford built his gargantuan manufacturing complex nearly a century ago.
Reinvented for 21st Century
The plant has been reinvented for the 21st Century. Now that Ford is assembling the aluminum body using rivets, industrial adhesive and screws instead of welding it together, the body shop seems much more open and airy.
And, while the plant is not exactly a library, it’s much quieter because the noisy sizzle and pop of steel welding is absent.
“When the hourly workers first walked in, they couldn’t believe how quiet and clean it was,” says Ketelhut.
New yellow robots, mostly from Fanuc America Corp., now hang from huge rails overhead, replacing the old robots that were mounted on the floor. That means the entire assembly process is much more visible. Gone are most of the huge cages that used to surround the welding stations. The robots themselves are drastically smaller and lighter than the machines they replaced.
One giant robot, the M2000, was known colloquially to employees as the Godzilla robot, weighing in at 20,000 kilograms, or 22 tons. It lifted steel bodies weighing up to 2,700 pounds and moved them down the line. Godzilla has now been replaced by the M900, or Baby Godzilla. It weighs a fraction what its predecessor weighed -- about one ton, but is capable of lifting 2,000 pounds.
“We only need a third of the energy we needed before,” says Ketelhut. “The tooling is smaller. The vehicle is lighter.”
The lightness of the aluminum parts has another benefit for line workers. They no longer need mechanical assistance to lift parts into place.
“It’s just great for the operators,” Ketelhut said. “They love it.”
But it might not be so great for haberdashers.