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

Business Day - Motor News - - MOTOR NEWS -

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.

DNA SHEET

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.

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