The first shift arrives in the chilly darkness at the Rouge River complex where Henry Ford built his once-mighty empire. He probably would not recognize Dearborn Truck Assembly, the most modern Ford factory, where at precisely 6 a.m. the lines start rolling to make the best-selling car in America. Only it happens to be a truck — the Ford F-series pickup.
Rob Webber runs this plant like a coach, cheering and cajoling from the sidelines. A self-described "motor head," Webber, the plant manager, orchestrates an elaborate choreography of 17 separate production lines that produce an F-150 pickup truck every single minute. Making trucks is in his blood.
"Absolutely love it. Bringing it altogether and seeing the finished product going out that door is absolutely phenomenal," he said.
But Webber and his team are under pressure. Sales of the F-150 are slowing and, last year, Toyota knocked Ford off its perch as the No. 2 automaker in the U.S. market for the first time since the Great Depression.
Kevin Dace, an assembly worker on the chassis line, blames higher gas prices. "Gas prices are slowing things down a lot," Dace said, for a truck that gets about 18 miles per gallon.
So Ford is banking on a new model F-150, unveiled at Sunday's Detroit Auto Show. It's the first redesign of the popular truck in five years and boasts better gas mileage, a roomier cab and new steps for easier access to the pickup box.
At Dearborn Truck, the intense global competition has led to a ferocious focus on quality. In fact, finding potential problems is Mark Stevens' only job. The 35-year veteran pulls finished trucks, at random, and puts them through their paces on a 30-mile rough road track. "We've always had the same standards in place for quality, but now we're following them like a religion."
That religion includes such daily rituals as a "tire-kick," where top managers scour the factory floor, seeking out even the tiniest flaws. At the body plant, Craig Clark supervises a "tear down," where parts are placed in a kind of automotive torture chamber and pulled to pieces so inspectors can check the quality of hundreds of welds.
That renewed focus on quality has recently earned Ford higher ratings from such organizations as Consumer Reports and J.D. Powers, but executives know that convincing the public takes time. Said Webber, the plant manager, "We're closing the [quality] gap and I think that's what the consumer is finally starting to see."
At 4:30 p.m., it's quitting time for the first 10-hour shift. Nearly 1,000 autoworkers pass through the doors not far from the bridge where 70 years ago union organizers died battling company cops.
Those contentious days are long gone, according to United Auto Workers Local 600 president Jerry Sullivan, "We still have our differences, but both sides realize that if we don't work together, this company's not going to exist."
That message is clearly sinking in. Marilyn Jasso, a second-shift assembly worker who supports her children and grandchildren, said, "We really feel a lot of pressure." Still, she is upbeat that Ford will prevail. "Toyota can watch out because we're coming back and we're going to take them."
But Jasso now shares the night shift with dozens of workers who never complain or call in sick. They are the robots who perform hundreds of precision welds. Even old-timers understand the dynamics of change. Randy LePage, an electrician who's worked at Ford since 1972, said, "They can't have any extra people. It's got to be lean."
As the second shift grinds away in the middle of the night, Dearborn Truck Assembly turns out an additional 500 of the most popular models on the planet. At 4:30 a.m., Jasso finally gets off work. And soon, the cycle that Henry Ford started here begins turning again.