Going 'fork free', 3D scans part of Ford's gold standard

RAYONG, Thailand Fri Aug 31, 2012 10:52am EDT

RAYONG, Thailand (Reuters) - At its just-opened $450-million factory in Thailand, Ford Motor Co (F.N) prides itself on being "fork-free."

Eliminating forklifts, which can have big blind spots, from the floor improves worker safety, the U.S. automaker says. Ford instead uses trolleys to bring parts to workers on the line here.

This shift is just one example of the new manufacturing standard that Ford is rolling out at its plants worldwide. Such changes are key to helping Ford cut costs and boost quality as it moves toward building more cars on shared global platforms.

Many of these practices are being tested at Ford Thailand Manufacturing, Ford's newest factory, where the automaker now builds its Focus compact for the local market here and other countries in southeast Asia.

Over time, Ford expects to export such practices to other plants worldwide, including some in the United States.

"Thailand is the first of a number of facilities that are going to look and feel exactly the same," said John Fleming, Ford's head of global manufacturing and labor affairs, in an interview Friday.

Workers at the Rayong factory, about an hour outside Bangkok, use a three-dimensional scanner to assess auto parts for fit and quality problems. The plant also employs a method of drying paint that only requires one oven instead of two.

Developing a single system of building vehicles is part of Chief Executive Alan Mulally's "One Ford" strategy to unify the company's once-disconnected business units.

Ford already is seeing cost benefits from creating global manufacturing standards, Fleming said, adding that "second cycle" investment costs -- those connected with the redesign of existing vehicles such as the Focus -- are 60 percent lower now than they used to be.

"When there are no standards, it's very difficult to replicate good ideas," Fleming said. Now, however, "we can really use them as best practices."

Already, many of Ford's plants have quit using forklifts, including those in Europe and Mexico, as well as the automaker's newest plant in Chongqing, China. The standard is being implemented next in the United States.

Ford began using the 3D scanner here as a way of ensuring quality in Thailand, where quality problems are still prevalent among parts suppliers.

Ford's plant in Louisville, Kentucky, now uses the 3D scanner, said Gary Johnson, head of manufacturing in Asia Pacific and Africa.

"We're updating other plants to have that new technology to look at what the incoming quality is, from domestic-made and imported parts," Johnson said.

Some practices are dictated by local economic conditions, executives said. The minimum wage in Thailand, which is 300 baht a day or less than $10, means Ford relies more on manual labor than it does at U.S. plants. About half the work is done by hand at the body shop in Rayong.

But Thailand's unemployment rate of less than 1 percent also presents challenges for Ford to meet its growth targets. To attract workers, the plant offers free uniforms, daily lunch and transportation to and from work, said Trevor Negus, manufacturing director of the plant.

"It may be that over time in this region or other regions we need to increase the levels of automation, because we aren't able to get all of the people that we need," Fleming said.

Since 2006, Ford has poured $6.7 billion into the Asia Pacific region, with the bulk of the investment -- nearly $5 billion -- going to China, to build new factories, launch new models and add dealers. Ford has introduced four new vehicles in Southeast Asia, including Thailand, and aims to launch four more by 2015.

Success in the region is essential to meeting Mulally's goal of selling 8 million cars worldwide by 2015. Sales in Thailand are expected to hit about 1.3 million vehicles this year.

Ford opened the FTM plant in May. The plant is flooded with natural light, helped by see-through panels installed on the ceiling. The walls have vents and the roof is open in certain areas, which allows the air to change four to six times an hour.

(Reporting By Deepa Seetharaman; Editing by Phil Berlowitz)

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