27
Apr
09

First Expeditions, Lincolns roll at retooled truck plant

By Alex Davis
alexdavis@courier-journal.com

The first Lincoln Navigators and Ford Expeditions made in Louisville are rolling off the assembly lines after a $200 million conversion project at Ford Motor Co.’s Kentucky Truck Plant.

Gov. Steve Beshear, Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson and other local officials took turns yesterday admiring a shiny blue Navigator with an asking price of $60,585, and an Expedition with chrome wheels that costs $54,710.

Sales of both upscale vehicles plunged 72 percent and 70 percent, respectively, in the first quarter of 2009 from a year earlier, and Ford executives said future sales trends will be determined partly by fuel costs and how soon the nation’s economy pulls out of a deep recession.

But during a tour of the retooled truck plant on Chamberlain Lane in eastern Jefferson County, they emphasized how the facility’s new flexible features allow multiple models to be produced using the same equipment, without a slowdown in volume.

In past years, it took six months or longer to make changes for new models.

We are moving very quickly to transform our manufacturing operations to allow us to respond to consumer demand,” said Jim Tetreault, Ford’s vice president of North American manufacturing.

Hourly employment at the truck plant is now back above 4,000 after several hundred additional workers were brought in for the launch of the Navigator and Expedition. Union and company officials are now turning their attention to the Louisville Assembly Plant, where similar changes are in store for next year.

Renovations at Louisville Assembly are estimated to cost up to $500 million, according to state officials, but no announcement has been made on the type of vehicles to be produced there. Employment at the Fern Valley Road plant has fallen below 1,500 due to sharp declines in sales of the Ford Explorer.

Tetreault said yesterday that he ideally wants to have all of Ford’s plants running three shifts at full capacity. All of the company’s production facilities are expected to have the new flexible features by 2013, he said, up from 83 percent now.

The main products still made at the Chamberlain Lane plant, Ford’s F-Series Super Duty trucks, began to share space on the assembly lines yesterday with Navigators and Expeditions as they worked their way through the body, paint and trim shops. The retooling project, which started in early December, brought new high-tech robots to the plant, a new trim shop and extensive training for employees.

Producing multiple vehicles at the same time, in some cases just a few feet away from each other, adds a new degree of complexity for workers, plant manager Joseph Bobnar said yesterday. And with the changes now complete, he said the plant is running at 85 percent capacity, up from close to 50 percent a year ago.

Although production will vary with demand, the plant will be able to make up to 300 Navigator and Expedition sport-utility vehicles daily. The first models made in Louisville were finished April 6. Some of the new flexible body shop in Louisville came from a closed Ford plant in Norfolk, Va.

Production of both vehicles at KTP will allow the Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne to be retooled for the next generation of the Ford Focus, starting in 2010.

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