LOUISVILLE, Kentucky, May 1 – Shutting down the assembly lines that build Super Duty pickup trucks at Ford Motor Co’s (F.N) Kentucky Truck Plant is a multimillion-dollar action company managers try hard to avoid.
As part of a new approach to stamping out quality demons, Kentucky Truck Plant manager Joseph Closurdo said he stopped production for as long as three days earlier this year. The halts gave engineers and suppliers time to fix defective parts discovered as workers began building a new generation of Ford’s highly profitable heavy-duty pickups.
“We would shut the build down if we weren’t meeting one of the targets” for quality, Closurdo said on the plant floor last week.
Halting the assembly line rather than building trucks and fixing them later was just one element of a new approach to attacking quality problems that Ford is road-testing with the launch of the redesigned Super Duty trucks.
Ford’s Super Duty model line has been around since 1998. A successful launch for the latest generation is critical for Ford to hit profit targets for this year. The automaker will report first-quarter results on Tuesday afternoon after the close of New York stock market trading.
The Super Duty trucks, heavy-duty pickups designed to tow large trailers or handle rugged commercial tasks, now come in luxury versions that can sell for more than $100,000. The Super Duties are among the most profitable vehicles Ford sells, generating billions in annual profit, analysts estimate.
Slashing the tax that quality problems levy on Ford’s profitability has become Job One for Chief Executive Jim Farley. Ford spent $4.17 billion on warranty claims last year, more than larger rival General Motors Co (GM.N). A successful launch for the Super Duty line is critical for Ford to hit its profit targets for this year.
Ford executives bet that investing more to catch quality problems early will pay off in the long run.
“We set the standard to be better than the outgoing product. We did not start shipping until we saw consistent delivery on those targets,” Super Duty Chief Engineer Andrew Kernahan told Reuters. “It took us longer than was planned.”
TOUCHING EVERY BUTTON
Kentucky Truck added 300 quality inspectors, and more engineers to chase down the root causes of defects and design new digital tools for catching problems before trucks rolled off the end of the line.
Workers now use a camera to feed images of electrical connections to software that can determine whether the connectors are properly connected.
Around the plant, engineers built command centers with more big screens than many sports bars, all displaying data from different assembly stations. One command center, with 16 screens, is known as Claire’s Corner because it was designed by process engineering manager Claire Yarmak.
“The complexity of this vehicle is huge,” Yarmak said. New comfort features, such as a front seat that reclines to create a sleeping bed, create new opportunities for trouble. When a sensor hooked into Yarmak’s screens detected a defective sensor in the sleeper seat, the line stopped.
Instead of test-driving a small sample of trucks to check for squeaks, rattles or infotainment system glitches – problems that take down scores on external quality surveys – Kentucky Truck deployed workers to drive 28,000 of the first new-generation Super Duties along a 25-mile (40 km) route near the factory.
“If it’s got a button, touch it. Make sure it works,” said David Jones, a member of the test-driving team and a 34-year Ford veteran whose father also worked at Kentucky Truck.
Instead of building all the different versions of the Super Duty from the start, Kentucky Truck started with the simplest work trucks and worked up to models such as Tremor diesel that has more electronic features and luxury appointments and a price tag as high as $119,000.
Even more expensive King Ranch and Platinum Super Duty models are just going into production now, Closurdo said.
Kentucky Truck’s dual assembly lines are now running at close to full speed, cranking out a new Super Duty, as well as Lincoln Navigator and Ford Expedition SUVs, at a pace of roughly one a minute.
Lessons learned from the Super Duty launch process are being relayed to factories that will launch the next new Ford vehicles, including a redesigned Mustang, Closurdo said.
“It’s the benchmark,” he said.
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Joe White is a global automotive correspondent for Reuters, based in Detroit. Joe covers a wide range of auto and transport industry subjects, writes The Auto File, a three-times weekly newsletter about the global auto industry. Joe joined Reuters in January 2015 as the transportation editor leading coverage of planes, trains and automobiles, and later became global automotive editor. Previously, he served as the global automotive editor of the Wall Street Journal, where he oversaw coverage of the auto industry and ran the Detroit bureau. Joe is co-author (with Paul Ingrassia) of Comeback: The Fall and Rise of the American Automobile Industry, and he and Paul shared the Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting in 1993.
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