DEARBORN, Mich., Jan. 14, 2008 — -- 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.