Is that a robot in the driver’s seat at Ford’s F-150 plant?

A bearded man closes the hood of a shiny black pickup truck, opens the driver-side door and hops in the cab, settling into a leather seat still wrapped in plastic.

He’s the first person to hit the ignition on this Ford F-150, sending the first puff of smoke out its tailpipe. His brief turn behind the wheel — which ends when he delivers the pickup for testing — follows a factory tradition that has launched new Fords for more than a century. But the process that got the pickup to this point is now wholly different.

Gone are the days when Ford’s factories would turn out cookie-cutter copies of a particular model, truck after truck after truck. The River Rouge Complex here can produce 600,000 variations of the F-150, giving a distinct, made-to-order touch to many of the 1,300 vehicles that roll off its assembly lines daily.

That kind of variety helps keep demand high for the F-150 — the best-selling truck in the United States for four decades — and that sort of innovation, some think, could help revive American manufacturing.

“People think about Henry Ford and the Model T, and that was a hundred years ago,” said Thomas Kurfess, a professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech. “If you go to one of these plants today, it’s amazing.”

Making this mass customization possible is a factory floor with more than 600 robots to weld, rivet, paint and inspect the trucks. Sophisticated software algorithms — rivaling in their complexity the calculations used to send men to the moon — direct the actions of robots as they and their human co-workers complete their various tasks. Parts travel 4.2 miles on conveyor belts that wind their way through a sprawling 10.4-acre factory.

This is a far cry from the factory floor that teemed with sweaty laborers when Detroit stood as a symbol of American industrial might. Ford pioneered the moving assembly line at a Michigan plant in 1913. A year later, a Collier’s magazine writer, Julian Street, called the plant, “a gargantuan lunatic asylum where fifteen thousand raving, tearing maniacs have been given full authority to go ahead and do their damnedest.”

During a recent visit to the body shop at the River Rouge Complex — where vehicle doors, bodies and tailgates are put together — a strange silence was punctured by the popping sounds of rivet guns and the beeps of driverless carts hauling supplies to assembly stations. The shop smells like rubber and Windex. The glow of LED lights glints off protective plastic eyewear.

Even as automation has bolstered productivity, it has taken a toll on American autoworkers, whose wages flat-lined as their employers shed jobs. Since 2000, U.S. carmakers have trimmed by 30 percent the number of employees in parts and manufacturing, according to federal data.

A few people walk the floor of the body shop, carrying clipboards or smartphones to monitor the real-time data churned out by assembly-line robots. If something is off by a hair, a man with a wrench, a neon vest and protective eyewear performs instant maintenance.

“The robots are good, but we’re going to trust but verify,” said Michael Lorenz, who runs the body shop .

One of the few human-specific jobs here is refilling a machine’s parts supply. A robot can notify a driverless cart that it needs more rivets, for example, but it can’t load the parts into its hopper. For that, you need opposable thumbs.

Cleanup is another job that people can do. Robots spit out “tape” that helps feed rivets into their riveting guns. Every few hours, the machines stop forroutine quality-control checks, and machinists sweep the tape into 40-gallon bins.

Except for the tape, the shop floor appears spotless. That’s a real accomplishment for the manufacturing sector, said Siemens USA’s president and chief executive, Eric Spiegel, whose company’s software is used to map and inventory the factory floor.

Spiegel’s grandfathers worked in Ohio steel mills. The work was “dirty, dark and dangerous,” he said, but it was a way to make a middle-class income for generations of factory and other industrial workers.

Factory work today is markedly different. “Things aren’t crowded,” Spiegel said. “You’ll see computers all the way down the line. And you’ll see a lot of people sitting up in a control room, managing the software.”

Bruce Hettle, Ford’s vice president for manufacturing and labor affairs, tendered a vision of human-machine cooperation.

“Clearly, what you see now is a different world of technology,” Hettle said, “and you see our people interfacing with the technology and operating in harmony with the technology to do things faster, higher quality, more investment-efficient.”

At the final-assembly plant, across the street from the body shop, truck cabs ride on pallets that rise automatically to accommodate the height of the machinist at an assembly station. The worker steps on the pallet, and automated systems provide tools and parts specific to each body type and variation. An employee of any shape or size can work at nearly every station.

The days of the “industrial athlete,” a burly, broad-shouldered man with calloused fingers and grease-stained trousers, have long since passed.

Much of the process-design work takes place in the company’s virtual-reality “cave,” where motion-capture technology allows workers to experiment with building digitally designed vehicles. About once a month, assembly-line workers go to the cave and don virtual-reality goggles and a motion-capture suit to determine whether a new part — a transmission, for instance, or a fuel hose — can be installed easily enough and comfortably.

If ergonomists identify a problem, engineers can tweak the design with a few lines of code rather than building a brand-new prototype transmission and testing it again. It’s a particularly striking example, executives say, of how factories have changed.

“When I started, there was a piece of paper [with instructions] that went with each truck, and if you lost that paper, you’re screwed,” said Don Pijor, the launch manager at the River Rouge plant. He has worked in manufacturing for Ford for nearly three decades. “Now everything talks to each other.”

American companies are racing to leverage technology to create better, more efficient products and processes. For large-scale manufacturers that have the capital to spend on digitally integrated tools, the return is often worth it.

Cisco Systems, which partners with General Motors on robotics, has seen defects cut in half at GM plants and energy costs reduced by 20 percent, according to Bryan Tantzen, senior manufacturing director.

Ford says it has cut by 90 percent ergonomic concerns involving parts and operations on the factory floor. Plant-related medical claims are down 75 percent, according to internal company measurements.

With that kind of cost saving, it makes sense to locate factories stateside again, Tantzen said, so they can be closer to research hubs and customers.

The flexibility made possible by smarter manufacturing also improves the buying experience for customers, analysts say. Mass customization is the future, said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

In other words, you used to be able to get a Model T in any color, as long as it was black, as Henry Ford famously quipped. Today, the same company can produce, at one plant, a pickup in hundreds of thousands of variations.

With that level of specificity, customers have more control over the details in products they buy.

“A vehicle is really becoming a part of an individual,” Dearborn plant manager Brad Huff said. “So we’ve seen it go from, in this particular vehicle line, being just a tool for work to being a family vehicle. I see that going even further: people putting their own stamp on it.”

And if carmakers can do it, other manufacturers can, too. Think about custom textiles or electronics, manufacturing analysts say. Companies in scalable industries — those that can generally step up production without sacrificing performance — probably can afford, and benefit from, investment in technology to optimize mass customization.

No one expects it to happen everywhere all at once. At small and midsize manufacturers, which employ most of the U.S. factory workforce, such investments will take longer, Lichtenstein said. The parts and materials that Ford’s suppliers ship to Dearborn — screws, instrument panels, fabrics — are not necessarily produced in factories with the same futuristic environment.

But at the River Rouge Complex, that technology made possible a shiny black F-150 that wound up at the Joe Machens Ford dealership in Columbia, Mo. It has black leather seats, a matte-black grill and a panoramic sunroof: a batmobile of a pickup truck.

Stand outside it with the remote, click the lock and “2x” buttons, and the engine roars.


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