Ford starts production of Fusion in U.S. for first time

FLAT ROCK, Mich., Aug 29 (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co began making its Fusion mid-size sedan in the U.S. for the first time on Thursday on stronger demand and after an intensive production training program to help it avoid costly quality problems that have plagued other models.

The added training is critical in helping the No. 2 U.S. automaker build sales as it boosts production capacity of the Fusion by more than 30 percent. The Fusion’s styling and features has helped it gain some ground against the Toyota Camry, which leads the mid-size segment. But Ford’s factory in Hermosillo, Mexico has been unable to keep up with consumer demand.

Ford is adding one shift at Flat Rock and production in Mexico will remain the same.

“We’ve done an unprecedented level of training for the new workers here,” Joe Hinrichs, who leads Ford’s operations in North and South America, told reporters at a media event at Flat Rock Assembly Plant to mark the start of production.

The Fusion, which was launched last year after an extensive redesign, was Ford’s No. 2 selling vehicle during the first seven months of 2013 after the F-150 pickup truck.

With the addition of Flat Rock, Ford will be able to make up to 350,000 vehicles a year. In preparation for the new output, each of the plant’s 1,400 new workers trained for 40 hours, said Flat Rock plant manager Tim Young.

The training was more intensive than the one Ford put in place at its plant in Louisville ahead of the Escape launch and reflects some of the lessons learned from Ford’s problems on the Escape crossover and Lincoln MKZ sedan.

“Several years back, it was teaching people how to put on nuts on bolts and doing repetitive tasks,” Young said in an interview. “Now they’re doing real-life work on engines, real life work on cars but more in a static environment.”

Ford recalled the Escape several times last year to repair a series of issues, including a fuel line defect that prompted the automaker to take the rare step of telling owners to stop driving their cars immediately.

The launch of the Lincoln MKZ was delayed due to quality and supply issues. Dealers had expected the sedan by the end of 2012, but inventory reached “normal” levels only this spring.

At Flat Rock, workers are trained in a more realistic environment that includes 10 different training areas to teach workers tasks including how to properly connect electrical connections, Young said.

“We took actual conveyers in the factory and installed them over there so people are working on the car in position, just like they’re going to be working on the floor,” Young said.

The bulk of the new Flat Rock workers are paid entry-level wages, which start at $15.78 an hour. The rest of the factory’s 3,100 workers are paid at a veteran wage of $28.50 an hour.