Initial production of 2009 Ford Flex, Oakville, Ontario; photo by Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge
By Jim Kerr
Ford’s Oakville Assembly Plant
It is like a ballet, with smooth, practiced movements, the focal point inside a continuous wave of different shapes, textures and colours. No, it is not a presentation from an artistic troupe, but for the mechanically inclined, the flow down the assembly line at Ford’s Oakville, Ontario assembly plant looks just as well-rehearsed. There is so much going on at the same time that it is difficult to take it all in, but let’s take a peek at some of what happens.
The 5.4 million square-foot (486,000 m2) plant – can you say humongous! – was built in the early 1950s, but has had several upgrades over the years. In 2005, Ford began a $1 billion conversion to flexible manufacturing, including a state-of-the-art body assembly facility. The Oakville plant is now a fully-flexible assembly plant that allows different body styles, powertrain layouts and option mixes to be manufactured at the same time on the same line. The Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX are being built on the line and were recently joined by the new Ford Flex crossover vehicle. Currently, the Flex makes up about one-third of the production from the Oakville plant, and you can quickly spot them in the endless line of body shells.
There are about three miles of conveyor inside the main assembly building, with another four miles of conveyor that transport bodies and parts down the robotic welding line, the paint line and between buildings.
Inside, there are parts moving everywhere you look. Complete dashes hang from support arms as they move in sequence to the line area where they are installed. Seats move on another line on their special pallets. Doors move overhead, already painted on the body and then removed to be “filled” with glass, handles, window mechanisms, speakers and interior trim on their own assembly line. Later, the doors will slip into the main assembly line so they can be installed on the body from which they were originally removed.
One of the surprises for me was the completeness of the body as it rolled down the line – backwards! After the interior is installed in the painted body shell, which includes the hood and fenders, the doors are installed and the vehicle looks complete – except there is nothing beneath it with which to drive. Clamshell arms are clipped onto the rocker panels to carry the body down the line as it is assembled further. The conveyor then rises up, and the bodies move along just above head height. Pallets along the assembly line have variable heights, so assemblers can access parts comfortably. It’s like building with blocks: as the vehicle moves along, each worker takes parts from several bins and installs them on the vehicle’s bottom. Brake pipes and fuel lines rest on racks, ready to be lifted into place. Special torque wrenches are supported by linkages, so the operator only has to swing them into place as they tighten all the bolts to specifications.
With the underside dressed, it is time to install the powertrain and suspension. Front struts and rear shocks are already on the body as it is lowered down a slope from the upper levels by the clamshell arms. “Moon buggies” that support the axle/engine assemblies are totally flexible platforms, adjusting for wheelbase, front-wheel or all-wheel drive, and can be quickly reconfigured to a new vehicle model. The powertrain is lifted up into the body structure as a unit, and pilot poles on the moon buggies line up with holes in the body so it fits perfectly together. It only takes about ten seconds to mate the body with the powertrain. Springs are set in by hand, and chains connected between the moon buggy and the vehicle compress the springs before the attaching bolts are torqued.
The body is now sitting on the sub-frame and it moves from the moon buggy to the clamshell for the final fluid fills, the initial starting of the engine, and an electrical check for onboard systems and communications systems. All checks are tracked by computer to build a database for that vehicle.
The windshield wipers and wheels and tires are the last items bolted on the vehicles. Then they go to a station where they are driven on rollers, while wheel alignment and headlight aim are set to specifications. Then it’s on to final inspection and out to the shipping yard for delivery to the dealerships and customers. It’s a mechanical ballet well worth seeing.