Tuesday, August 24, 2010


We toured the Rouge Ford Complex yesterday, which at one time was the biggest,  most competitive, efficient, successful, industrial complex in the world. Henry Ford's innovation was a beacon to other industries and this plant was the stellar example with 100,000 employees in 1934. An amazing place then, and an amazing place, now.

Henry Ford worked for Thomas Edison for eight years before quiting him in 1889. As we know, Edison was a big thinker and innovator who inspired others. They remained lifelong friends. Ford tinkered with his Tin Lizzie and was ready to open shop. The first Ford Automobile Company failed. He tried again and failed again. In 1903, he finally got The Ford Motor Company off the ground. Famous for his assembly line technique, he learned from watching others, how a butcher would hang his beef and wheel it around to make cuts on it. How a clock maker would make two gears for a precision clock to have a spare gear for repair when it wore out. How cotton mills passed bags of fibers from one worker to the other at a mill.
He built and sold cars but he wanted them to be affordable for everyone, rather than the automobile becoming a plaything for the rich. At that time, it took 12 hours to build a car.  He disliked having to depend on some company that was behind on his parts, or couldn't deliver product while he had men waiting. He wanted to control the building of his cars from start to finish-his way.
 He bought 2000 acres of cheap marshland and had his Rouge Plant built right on the Rouge River where raw materials could be delivered by barge.  It was the first plant to make a car from raw materials to finish all in the same plant.
Eventually he got the building of a car down from 12 hours to 93 minutes with his famous innovations in the assembly line and by continually looking for new ways to cut costs.
 For instance, he posed to his engineers that he would like to have an engine made from a single block of metal. He was told it would be impossible. His reply, you can find a job elsewhere, I want somebody who will do it. And, they did. Other manufacturers where aghast in 1914, when he doubled wages; 10,000 people came to the plant looking for work. He wanted the men he had working for him to be able to afford his cars.
As a result, in 1927 when he came out with the Model A, huge crowds came out to see it at dealerships all over the country. Everyone wanted to drive a car.
Portions of the old Rouge Plant are visible above. Portions have been rebuilt and refurbished over the years. Rouge was the factory of the future and made Ford rich and helped build America as an industrial giant.
 The new Rouge Assembly Plant, with its  robotic assembly line, would surely make its founder proud today. Unfortunately, no pictures are allowed inside. Even the outside of this new building is the plant of the future. Vines help cool the building. The roof is a "green"; planted with an inch of sedum which requires no watering. It survives on rain water and needs no mowing. It gets fertilizer once a year. It cut down the amount of rainwater runoff by 60 percent and saved 45 million dollars in water treatment costs. It reduces by 10 percent the amount of air conditioning needed in summer and heat needed in winter. Plus sky lights have cut the cost of lighting.
 This bank of solar panels also reduces cost of electricity, but it is the inside of the plant, the assembly process, that blows the mind. It is fascinating to watch the workers put together pick-up trucks so efficiently you can hardly believe the sheer genius of this robotic assembly line. Every move a worker makes has to be comfortable. No carpal tunnel here. Every arm twist and wrist movement, any difficult movement is done by the assistance of robotic arms that swivel at multiple joints with the body and turn like toys in your hand.  All heavy parts are moved by a robotic lifter and simply guided into place. Most of the finish pieces, liners, locks, head lights, panels, etc. are snap on, then screwed in place, making assembly easy.  If a worker is short, the car body lowers to his height at his station on inflatable "skillets".  Its clean, color coded, bar coded truly the plant of the future. We gawked for three hours. I only wish we could have taken pictures of this huge network of bright yellow machinery, called Free On Move Systems that fill the whole building in a ballet of efficient synchronization over three floors.
Jim's friend, Art Lambart, worked at Ford for 25 years after he left the nuclear plant business. He and Sue attended with us and we gave it 8 thumbs up. Don't miss this tour.

No comments: