Ford finishes a billion-dollar Chicago expansion

500 new hires and advanced equipment have prepared its oldest factory for more SUV production.

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Chassis of future Ford Explorers roll through the assembly line Monday at Ford’s manufacturing plant on Torrence Avenue, where the company has spent $1 billion to improve production.

John Booz/ for the Sun Times

In the City of Big Shoulders, Ford has built a City of Big Vehicles.

The 95-year-old factory on the city’s Southeast Side, the oldest in Ford’s system, has received $1 billion in upgrades with its manufacturing partner, the stamping plant in Chicago Heights. The expansion has primed the Torrence Avenue assembly plant to turn out more of the best-selling Ford Explorers and to fill what the company says is a lengthy order book for the Lincoln Aviator.

Gone is the factory’s longtime staple, the four-door sedan Taurus, which ended life in March, before the plant shut down for a month to get ready for its transformation. To compete, Ford has shifted dramatically from tight-margin sedans to SUVs, and its Chicago operations are key to its success in the three-row, premium-price segment.

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Jason Perez, a worker at the Calumet City FORD Plant, jokes with Ford representative and tour guide Marla Dillard-Lemons as the company unveiled its enhancements to the Chicago assembly plant.

John Booz/ for the Sun Times

During the break, Ford brought in 500 truckloads of new equipment, including nearly 600 robots to work in welding. Company executives said the automation has allowed workers to be shifted to other areas that are crucial to quality and that about 500 jobs have been added. The Torrence plant now employs about 5,000 people, while the stamping plant has 1,200.

“We’re proud of our commitment to the South Side,” said Joe Hinrichs, Ford’s president, Automotive. “It’s a big commitment by Ford here that says a lot about the community.”

The plant added two 3-D printers at a cost of nearly $200,000 so it can produce its own replacement parts for production equipment, saving substantially in money and time compared with outsourcing the work. Aisles have been widened, lighting and ventilation improved and break areas added just off the production lines so workers needn’t hustle to a cafeteria.

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A Ford worker installs parts on a transmission Monday at the Chicago assembly plant.

John Booz/ for the Sun Times

The changes were made in cooperation with the United Auto Workers, whose members the company made available on a media tour Monday praised the improvements. “The place is 95 years old but it’s just like new,” said Robert Washington, a body shop assembler.

Workers took the March shutdown in stride, said the plant’s UAW chairman, Alan “Coby” Millender. Adding production “helped the average employee support their families. It’s taking us to a different level income-wise. Ford had to invest money here to make money,” he said.

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Ford Automotive President Joe Hinrichs congratulates the touch up crew Monday at the Chicago assembly plant.

John Booz/ for the Sun Times

The cost of a 2020 Ford Explorer can range from $33,000 to about $58,000, while the Lincoln Aviator retails for $51,000 to nearly $78,000, according to Edmunds.com. Ford executives said the plant’s Aviator production is ticketed for China. The highly tricked-out 2020 Police Interceptor Utility also comes from the plant and is close to $40,000, but the final price varies in fleet sales.

Hybrid versions of the Explorer and the Police Interceptor Utility also are available.

Plant Manager Jimmy DeMartino said the model combinations can be complex to handle in production, so Ford has spent heavily on employee training and high-tech help such as an all-seeing robot that inspects electrical connections.

At a body shop command post, workers can instantly see where there’s a problem on the line. Machines are programmed to emit an individual noise so employees know exactly where attention is needed.

DeMartino said that at peak production, the plant finishes a vehicle about every 52 seconds. Last year’s production totaled 335,000 vehicles, he said. How much Ford is aiming for this year remains a company secret.

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