Ford building a quick-change plant to meet fickle auto tastes

The world automobile market is changing so fast these days that carmakers are hard put to stay up to date even as they spend billions of dollars on new plant facilities, both in the United States and abroad.

Motorists are incredibly fickle, and the size or type of car that's popular today may be the slow seller tomorrow.

A basic need is the ability to switch over a plant from one vehicle to another, quickly and at reasonable cost, as market demand shifts. Clearly, the auto industry still has a long way to go.

''We face a tremendous challenge,'' admits Paul F. Guy, director of manufacturing engineering at the Ford Motor Company. Besides building new plants with the latest processes and equipment, ''we also have to bring our older plants up to speed technology-wise and install programmable automation so that we can change over a plant much more quickly than in the past,'' he says.

''When we built plants 15 or 20 years ago, our markets were far less fragmented and our volumes were higher,'' Mr. Guy observes.

''Too, our cycle runs were longer, so we could get by with a lot of dedicated equipment,'' he says. Now the demand is to install new technology that is more flexible, thus enabling a company to change from Product A to Product B ''without spending $650 million to do it.''

''Flexible automation is the key,'' says General Motors chairman Roger B. Smith.

If carmakers can reduce the cost of a changeover, it could be reflected in lower car prices for the consumer.

Ford, which already has an engine plant in Mexico, is building a state-of-the-art assembly plant in Hermosillo, Sonora, at a cost of between $500 million and $600 million. The plant, which will include some of the company's latest ideas on integrated production techniques, is expected to build a derivative of the Mazda GLC. The Japanese automaker already builds the Laser, a version of the GLC, in Australia for Ford. The first cars are due off the assembly line in early 1987.

''We plan to integrate some of the stamping operations with the assembly operations,'' reports Guy - ''something we've wanted to do for a long time.''

In the past, carmakers built stamping plants all over the country, sometimes far from the factory where the parts were required. ''That results in a lot of transportation cost, handling, and potential damage,'' he says with a sigh. In Mexico, the stamping operations will be right on the site.

Besides saving transportation costs and potential damage, the company also creates a close feedback loop between any dimensional problems in the sheet metal and the actual body construction. If there is a problem in fit, it can be quickly corrected on the site.

What Ford will not be able to do in Mexico is take full advantage of the Japanese system of just-in-time deli-very of inventory. Hermosillo, for example, is not a major industrial center. Initially, Ford may not be able to locate many suppliers within close range of the plant.

''Ideally, we'd like to have all our suppliers right there,'' says Guy, ''just like Toyota City in Japan, but it may not be feasible. So there's a penalty that we'll probably have to pay.''

Automakers agree that the whole issue of where to locate a new plant is, as he puts it, ''a major compromise.''

Hermosillo made good sense to Ford because of its low wage base and large number of workers nearby. It's also close to a major port on the Gulf of California, which minimizes rail transportation from the port to the plant.

''Transportation costs were a major factor,'' Mr. Guy reports. ''Many of the materials and parts will be coming by ship.''

Besides its location, Hermosillo also has universities nearby, which, the Ford manufacturing executive says, ''are a source of talented people.''

As for quality, Ford indicates some concern, but it has an aggressive plan to deal with the issue. Ford, for example, built a large plant in Valencia, Spain, where the people are similar in educational and cultural background to the workers in Hermosillo.

The carmaker plans a two-pronged approach to the issue, including not only an intensive training program for the workers, but also a program to develop its local supplier base.

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