Hats off to the vehicle makers at the coal face
SPECIAL REPORT/ Denis Droppa recounts his experience as an assembly-line worker for a day at Ford SA’s Silverton factory
Last week Ford SA invited journalists to spend some time on the production line of its Silverton factory near Pretoria, not just as observers but helping to assemble the new Ranger Raptor bakkie due to be launched in SA early in 2019.
After a recent investment of almost R3bn to expand its capacity of up to 168,000 vehicles per year, comprehensive upgrades and changes were implemented at the plant.
Ford’s Silverton plant churns out 530 Rangers and Everest SUVs per day destined for the local market, as well as 148 leftand right-hand drive countries. It’s a massive logistical exercise and every vehicle has to be fitted with the correct basket of features lest some dealer in Manchester or Mexico City ends up with a Ranger missing the desired load-bay liner.
I’ve spent a lot of time on factory tours and, while it can be fascinating, it’s not the same as donning gloves and doing the work yourself.
I was first assigned to the Trim 1 station where, under the close guidance of Ford’s factory workers, the job was to insert either protective plastic lining or tie-down hooks into the load bays, and also to attach the Ford badge to the tailgate.
Simple enough, and the conveyor belt moves at a slow enough pace for even a rookie to get it done timeously before the vehicle crawled to the next station.
The tricky part is figuring out which vehicles need the hooks and which ones require the load-bay liners, and this is done by deciphering the codes printed onto a sheet of paper taped to the vehicle’s bonnet as it moves around the huge factory.
The codes look like the scribblings of a mad scientist, but they’re the “DNA sheet” that ensures each vehicle gets its allocated list of components.
The components, along with their bolts and washers, are lined up at the correct station in a complex logistical exercise that Henry Ford (the father of the production line) would be proud of.
Next up was Trim 4 station where the work was slightly more complex, involving fitting a wiper motor. Make sure it’s the right way up, plug it into the wiring loom and use a power tool to tighten three bolts to the correct torque. An alarm shrieks if you’ve undertightened a bolt, one of the countless checks and balances on the line to ensure product quality.
It’s fairly frenetic work and you only have a couple of minutes to complete the task, made more complicated by there being two types of wiper motors. Here again, the mad scientist’s code sheet specifies which to use. And make sure you go to the correct side of the car because left- and right-hand drive vehicles come through at random. You get the hang of it and fall into a rhythm, but it’s hard work and it becomes monotonous.
There are dozens of stations in Ford’s factory where the Rangers and Everests get assembled a small piece at a time by factory workers. While the bodies are mostly built by robots, adding the countless pieces of trim, sound-deadening and wiring is more complex work that requires humans.
The engines are built at Ford’s Port Elizabeth factory, and taken to Silverton where they’re slotted into the vehicles.
Each vehicle that comes off the line is taken through a rough-road course to check for any rattles or squeaks, and a water spray to ensure there are no leaks.
After three decades of testdriving and writing about cars, it was the first time I experienced what happens at the “coal face” of vehicle production and it was an eye-opener. I spent only an hour or two at each station, and I take my hat off to the workers who spend eight or more hours a day doing the same repetitive task. And to the people who work out the complex process, ensuring that widget A isn’t accidentally united with vehicle B, pure genius.