Ford transforms its India facility

Ford India's Chennai plant is readying for volume production of its soon-to-be-launched small car and has effected a comprehensive transformation to double capacity to 200,000 per annum.

Autocar Pro News DeskBy Autocar Pro News Desk calendar 15 Sep 2009 Views icon5608 Views Share - Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share to Whatsapp
Ford transforms its India facility
Ford India is making a quantum leap in quality. Its integrated manufacturing facility in Maraimalai Nagar, Chennai, is readying for volume production of its soon-to-be-launched small car and has effected a comprehensive transformation to double capacity to 200,000 per annum. Ford Motor Co has invested $500 million in the Indian plant, which was chosen as the ideal production facility for its new car to be produced not only for India but also for export markets.

Equipped with cutting-edge automation and high-tech new facilities, the re-equipped facility reflects the latest Ford manufacturing processes globally and pioneers new technologies both for Ford and India. Created with a ‘best of the best’ approach, the plant has been benchmarked against other competitive facilities worldwide as well as the current volume manufacturers in the Indian market, for quality and production efficiency. It's a shift to higher production volumes with greater flexibility and speed.

According to Michael Boneham, president and managing director, Ford India, “This new world-class manufacturing facility is a symbol of our commitment to India and our intention to compete with the best in the market. When the first small car rolls off the line, it will be a moment when Ford achieves its potential as a major player in the Indian automotive industry”.

Quality benchmarked to global levels

With the expansion and transformation programme in place, the Maraimalai Nagar plant is now geared to achieve production efficiency and quality ranking in line with the world’s best. Tom Chackalackal, vice-president, manufacturing, Ford India, says: “This is a huge conversion that brings together all the lessons we have learned in the Indian market and best practices from Ford and our competitors. It will make us very competitive with Indian manufacturers and give Indian customers a better product than ever before. Much of our investment is centered on quality and our desire to be the best in class in the country.”

The quality product programme for Maraimalai Nagar began with the plant’s higher levels of automation, which are essential for ramped-up production volumes, precision build quality, flexible manufacturing capability and worker safety. Until this transformation, the plant was designed for manual assembly operation. It was essential, for both world-class quality and volume production, to increase the level of automaton, especially for major operations in body construction and painting to deliver consistent quality, vehicle after vehicle. The expansion brings 92 sophisticated robots into key areas of the plant to handle repetitive tasks with high degrees of accuracy and precision. Sixteen new painting robots were installed for the plant’s new Three-Wet High-Solids painting system. These robots apply the coats of paint successively — four for primer coat, eight for the base coat and four for the clear coat — with even precision in upto 11 colours. For speed and precision, the company has installed underbody sealer application. Underbody welding robots and body framing systems have the flexibility to handle different-sized vehicles with extremely high levels of precision and weld quality. Another quality measure is the installation of a robotic door hemming.

Ford’s no-compromise approach to delivering high-quality for progressive, yet value-oriented customers mandated a significant investment to introduce a high-tech new paint process for Chennai. Clearly, it brings new levels of finish quality, depth and durability and makes Ford India’s first global car plant to introduce the technology, which is also a first for India.

Ford pioneered the Three-Wet High-Solids technology at its Avon Lake plant for trucks in the US in 2007. Ford India will be the only automaker to use this technology in India. What’s more, following its first application on the recently-launched new Endeavour SUV, this process will be used for the first time on passenger cars with the debut of its new small car. The paint system is already in operation in prototyping and production ramp-up, prior to its volume-production kick-off early in 2010. Ford has partnered with paint suppliers BASF and PPG and facility supplier Durr for this project. While elaborating on the new paint technology, Chackalackal says: “Three-Wet High-Solids is an eco-friendly process which produces beautifully painted vehicles with three wet coats: primer, base coat and clear coat of high solids-content paint applied one after the other. As it eliminates oven curing between coats, the process produces few CO2 emissions and further reduces volatile organic compounds emissions by about 20 percent compared to current medium-solids solvent-borne paints”.

This makes the newly expanded Indian plant the pioneer for a premium-quality paint process that might normally be expected to debut on a luxury car. Its high-solids content results in a paint finish with high levels of gloss and depth of colour, plus it is more resistant to scratches. The process will also be used for volume production in Chennai beyond the new car. The new technology brings with it other important benefits too.

“The biggest user of energy and fuel in a manufacturing plant is the paint shop. By introducing this new technology, we are cutting energy use and fuel consumption significantly and that is good for the environment and the community,” Chackalackal adds.

High-volume automation

Other key highlights include a new stamping press line and automated crossbar technology (to double the plant’s metal pressing capacity for body panels) and a new flexible body shop capable of producing Ford India’s existing product portfolio as well as the soon-to-be-introduced new model simultaneously. It has been ‘future engineered’ with the flexibility to accommodate other vehicle types as well. Ford India has also initiated the extension of the trim and final assembly line for flexible assembly capability and benefit from centralised bulk material feeding, in-sequence feeding of key supplier components and delivery of engines via overhead conveyors. The new assembly line raises capacity from 14 to 34 vehicles per hour.

A major investment in quality assurance is a new 3.2km test circuit to verify quality before vehicles are shipped, a squeak-and-rattle testing track for finished vehicles, a dynamic water-wading test bed and a four-post hydro-lifter for extreme road condition simulation testing. The company has enlarged its plant size from 250 acres to 353 acres, of which around 60 percent is built-up area and the remaining lawns and a green belt. The redevelopment included construction of a new zero-discharge waste water treatment facility for the plant complex.

Boneham says, “We are passionate about Ford competing in the heart of the Indian car market and delivering on our brand promise. Our investment in the Chennai plant is set to enable us to create products that will compete with the recognised market leaders and be attractive in other international markets. That puts our Chennai facility in an entirely different league.”

When its plant transformation is complete, Ford will have added hundreds to its local employment base. But the economic impact extends well beyond with indirect employment benefits for the Chennai region. The company predicts new jobs in the thousands will be created regionally due to its efforts to expand its supplier base with 30 new vendors in the region. The new facility features an enlarged supplier park and Ford India is now sourcing more raw materials and components than ever before. Upto 85 percent of parts supplies for the new car will be sourced from India.

Lean manufacturing

The transformed Maraimalai Nagar plant is built around an array of new lean manufacturing techniques to make it ultra-efficient and its products cost-competitive even in the hotly contested sub-B segment in India and abroad.

Technology-enabled by multiple computer systems, this lean manufacturing approach enables build-to-order production with parts and components supplied from the new adjacent 30-acre supplier park and other (primarily local) suppliers. Key suppliers are investing in building their own facilities on the plant site. Through conveyor systems, the plant is geared for production sequence delivery of a greater proportion of supplier component assemblies, like instrument panels, wheel-and-tyre units and front-end modules from on-site suppliers.

Unlike previous-generation plants, parts and components for new cars take a lean journey to assembly and some parts actually follow the car as it is built to order via a state-of-the-art rolling trolley system. Called ‘kitting’, this ensures that the parts are available conveniently to workers but also reduces the chances of installing incorrect parts, thus ensuring a ‘built right’ vehicle.

The plant’s upgraded computer infrastructure uses multiple IT systems including radio frequency identification to manage logistics within the facility. This and other technologies are designed to help the plant manage much smaller inventories of commodities and parts and keep them closer to production for easy logistical access and grater production speed. Automated systems and close links with suppliers ensure parts supplies are delivered just-in-time and often in exact production order for each vehicle to be produced. The plant’s site improvements include new truck staging facilities being constructed on the plant grounds to position waiting delivery and transport vehicles off the roadside of the national highway.

Ford is already conducting pre-production test building of its new car in the facility and will be gearing up in the fourth quarter of this year towards the start of volume production in 2010. Construction work has been conducted throughout the expansion project to avoid disruption of existing production operations at the plant. Although that was a key challenge, the company believes redeveloping its existing facility rather than building a greenfield plant was the better option. Ford has yet to reveal details about the new small car which will be the expanded plant’s first new product. “The wait is almost over. We are on target and this is a quantum leap for Ford India,” Boneham concludes.

Clearly, get set to see a new Ford in India.
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