Ford conjures up sheer magic from sheet metal

Ford conjures up sheer magic from sheet metal

DH Wheels' correspondent takes a tour of Ford India's facility, and narrates the marvel of how coils of steel are transformed into spanking-new cars

Ford conjures up sheer magic from sheet metal

The $1 billion-plus Ford Chennai Vehicle Assembly and Engine Plant (CVAEP) at Maraimalai Nagar, near Chennai, has many firsts to its credit. It is the first Ford plant in the world with a single flexible production line to manufacture both petrol and diesel engines. It is also the first Ford facility to run a flexible crankshaft production line, and to have fully flexible cold test, hot test, and dyno test facilities for petrol and diesel engines.

The plant, which started its journey in 1999, currently has an annual capacity of 2,00,000 vehicles and 3,40,000 engines. From here rolls out a whole range of products from the Ford stable, including the Ford Figo, Ford Fiesta, Ford Classic, Ford Endeavour, and the Ford EcoSport.

Along with the highly skilled workers who have justly made Chennai the motown of India, the state-of-the-art plant also employs about a 100 robots as part of Ford’s green manufacturing initiatives.

Start from a blank slate
Sheet metal processing marks the first step in the manufacturing process, where coils of steel are levelled, washed, and cut into smaller pieces known as blanks. The blanks are then moved to the stamping (the process of placing flat sheet metal into a stamping press) facility, where they are fed into the line through an automatic feeder and pressed into specific parts — doors, bonnets, roofs, etc.

The stamping line features cross-bar technology, and is configured for quick-die changes of less than three minutes, thereby adding flexibility to the production schedule.
 The blanking and the stamping facilities each feature two automated lines, which are fully enclosed to ensure noise reduction and dirt protection. The stamping facility also features white light scanner technology for measuring panels and dies. This ‘touchless’ inspection method brings in high levels of accuracy.

“Ford has an unwavering commitment to India, and Chennai was the first place from where we started our Make in India journey. Since coming to Chennai, we have continued to invest in producing world-class quality products and creating job opportunities,” says Balasundaram Radhakrishnan, Executive Director (Manufacturing), CVAEP, Ford India.

Sturdy goes the body
The next stage is the body construction process, where parts are moved from the stamping facility into the technologically-advanced body construction area.
This features a single-line flow process, which includes automated robotic underbody and flexible framing lines designed to build up to six different models in one line.

The vehicles undergo various processes at every stage of body construction to ensure they meet global standards of quality and safety. A portable measuring machine is used to gauge the jigs and fixtures for build precision, while the parts-checking fixture measures all major sub-assemblies.

The real-time seal gap measuring equipment is clearly an advancement over the conventional method of measuring seal gaps with hand-held callipers. Metal finish tests ensure that there are no blemishes on the vehicles, before they move into the paint shop. With more than a hundred robots for various welding, hem and sealer operations, all welding robots in the body construction facility are equipped with servo motor welding guns, another Ford investment in quality. These guns are quieter, compared with the previous low-technology welding guns, and deliver high quality welds, which are cleaner, with reduced expulsion and burring. Servo motors allow the welding tips to be brought smoothly into place, eliminating metal distortion, and ensuring stable weld pressure.

Superior paint finish
The paint shop in the Chennai plant makes for a very interesting stage of car manufacturing with its use of the three-wet, high-solids paint technology. It delivers a superior finish with high gloss and depth of colour, improved durability, and better resistance against scratches and stone chips.

The automated paint booth features robots to apply three coats of paint — primer, basecoat and clearcoat — one on top of the other. This ‘three-wet’ approach eliminates the need for oven-baking between coats.

The system also includes a robotic underbody sealer application process. It uses three robots to apply the sealer — a quicker, higher quality approach for vehicle quality. The paint shop offers nine different colours, thereby giving customers more colour options.

Now for the assembly
The painted vehicles now move into the modern final assembly area, which features lean line-side inventory, and uses a kitting (the process by which parts that are required for the specific assembly object are grouped together or ‘kitted’ and placed into a kit container) approach to deliver the right parts and components for each vehicle as it is assembled. 

The kitting system uses wheeled trolleys that follow alongside each vehicle through its assembly. The trolleys are designed to make the efforts of production workers more ergonomically easy, such as reducing bending movements. As the vehicles move through the line, fully dressed engines are delivered in production sequence to the final assembly area, through an overhead conveyor belt from the adjacent engine plant.

With quality being a key metric in the Global Ford Production System, all vehicles are put through a range of tests at the end of the final assembly line. This is in accordance with the Global Ford Consumer Product Audit, which evaluates vehicles from the customer’s perspective.

The vehicles are also tested extensively on a circuit, which features various road surfaces designed to simulate real-world driving conditions, including straight road, twisting road, cement road, hill-climbing and rural road conditions.

Mirroring the best practices from Ford assembly plants around the world, this circuit requires special manoeuvres over bumps and other surfaces. This is used to check vehicle quality and structural robustness before it is shipped, and significantly reduces customer concerns about squeaks and rattles. Currently, vehicles manufactured at CVAEP are exported to over 37 markets from the Chennai and Ennore ports.

Safety a priority
Safety is Ford’s key priority — be it for the product, or the plant processes. All CVAEP visitors are introduced to the plant safety protocol through an eight-minute video, which lays out the dos and don’ts to be followed during plant walks, and steps to be taken in case of emergencies.

Fully covered shoes and full-sleeved clothes are essential on the shop floor, and visitors are directed to designated gangways and aisles in each facility. Protective equipment, including earplugs, goggles, watch covers and belt covers, are provided to visitors, as per the requirement in each shop-floor.

“With quality being a key metric on the Global Ford Production System, all vehicles produced at our plant have not only won the hearts of customers in India, but also around the world. Ford EcoSport has won more than 30 awards, and has been recently ranked the highest in JD Power 2014 India Initial Quality Study (IQS),” says Balasundaram.

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