Ford thinks it has found a cost-effective way to make its first plug-in hybrid, a potentially low-volume car.
The 2013 C-Max Energi shares parts with other Ford hybrids. Ford and its younger work force have contained costs by building an electrified vehicle on the same line with conventional gas-engine cars.
The C-Max Energi is built at the Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, along with the C-Max hybrid, the Ford Focus, the Focus ST performance car and the Focus Electric. They share compact car underpinnings, but differences above the chassis present major challenges to workers.
Currently one in four vehicles is a hybrid, said Melanie Kobylas, a trim launch leader. Guiding reporters through the plant, Kobylas showed pallets that lift those cars into which battery packs are inserted. The gas-engine Focuses behind a hybrid remain at ground level where workers perform different tasks.
Ford workers have adapted to this complexity even as a third shift of 1,200 new workers, hired in May, are learning their jobs. About 100 extra jobs were added because of the complexity of cars with batteries.
On Thursday, Michigan Assembly was scheduled to make 1,234 vehicles, 218 of them a C-Max.
Ford has hired 5,200 workers in the U.S. this year, of which 4,800 are entry-level workers. More than 1,200 will be added next year to make Fusions in Flat Rock.
Entry-level workers have lower wages -- about $15 an hour compared with more than $26 for those hired before 2007 -- which has reduced manufacturing cost, said Jim Tetreault, head of Ford's North American manufacturing. Multiple vehicles on one line also reduces cost. Sharing components reduces cost by 30%.
But new, younger workers must be trained. Among about 800 people Ford hired for a third shift in Chicago, the average age is 25. Many have never worked in an auto plant.
"It's a different cohort we're dealing with," Tetreault said. "They are younger and haven't worked in a factory before," which means a need for basic training like holding a tool.
Michigan Assembly is one of a growing number of Ford factories running with three crews of workers on two shifts. Tetreault said five assembly, four powertrain and all Ford stamping plants are operating on two shifts or more. Ford has expanded its U.S. annual capacity to 400,000 units.
A productivity study conducted by the consulting firm Harbour Results found that Ford is now at 114% capacity in the U.S. after closing single-shift factories last year in St. Paul, Minn., and St. Thomas, Ontario.
Flexibility allowed Ford to add the C-Max Energi, with 1,100 distinct parts, in Wayne without interrupting output of the other four vehicles. That is something the plant, which was dedicated to making full-size SUVs until 2008, could not do before Ford invested $550 million on new tooling and other equipment.
The C-Max Energi is now on sale for $29,995 after federal tax credits. Ford said its new C-Max models will get better fuel economy than Toyota's Prius v wagon.
That is significant because the three Prius models accounted for 54% of all hybrids sold in the U.S. through the first 10 months of 2012, according to HybridCars.com. But Ford just had its best-ever October for hybrid sales, said Kevin Layden, director of electrified vehicle engineering.
President Barack Obama's re-election reaffirms the government's target for an average fuel economy of 54 m.p.g. by 2025. That provides automakers some stability, said C.J. O'Donnell, marketing manager for Ford's hybrid and electric vehicles.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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