August 2008

Ford's model plant for the future wages extensive supplier integration

At Ford's Camaçari plant in Brazil, there are two dozen or more suppliers operating right inside the complex.

Indeed, in many cases, they are producing components alongside Ford's main production line. The concept allows Ford to take just-in-time manufacturing to a whole new level.

Inventories are small or nonexistent. Components like dashboard assemblies flow directly into the main Ford assembly line at the precise point and time of installation.

The Detroit News reported at this Ford factory, a group of Visteon Corp. workers connect the wiring in a dashboard module for a Ford EcoSport.

Next to them, Lear Corp. employees are building seats for the same vehicle. A few feet away, Ford's Diede Silva dos Santos applies trim to a Fiesta subcompact. She has mastered seven jobs at the plant and is working on an eighth.

"If you do different jobs, it's more interesting," said Silva dos Santos. "It gives me a chance to expand my knowledge. (It) makes me a more valuable employee, too, so that I will have a future here."

All of them exemplify a different kind of worker in a different kind of plant for a Detroit automaker.

This state-of-the-art manufacturing complex in the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia is not only the centerpiece of Ford's Brazilian turnaround plan, it is also one of the most advanced automobile plants in the world. It is more automated than many of Ford's U.S. factories, and leaner and more flexible than any other Ford facility. It can produce five different vehicle platforms at the same time and on the same line.

Ford sources said it is the sort of plant the company wants in the U.S., were it not for the United Auto Workers, which has historically opposed such extensive supplier integration on the factory floor.

Many automakers use South America to try out new manufacturing ideas. Volkswagen AG has suppliers in some of its factories, and General Motors Corp. has a supplier park surrounding its plant in Gravataí, Brazil. However, analysts say no automaker has gone as far as Ford.

"South America is kind of the global sandbox for a lot of automakers to try out new methods," said Michael Robinet, vice president of global vehicle forecasts for CSM Worldwide. "Ford was able to think out of the box, and it's paying off for them."