F-150 Lightning plant in Dearborn unlike anything Ford has built in 118 years
Heading west down Interstate-94, Exit 209 is clearly marked Rotunda Drive but there's nothing very special about it. Everything looks familiar, like the industrial Midwest, and the roads are cracked and crumbling and lined with orange and white construction barrels.
Exiting and driving past old factory buildings and smokestacks, the landscape looks like a Hollywood set for an era long gone. Keep going, beyond Eagle Pass and the Dearborn Paint Plant and the F-Series Body Shop.
Turn at Gate 4.
Code name: REV-C.
Do not be fooled by the lack of fancy signage.
This is where the 118-year-old Ford Motor Company is banking on its plan to go from making the bestselling truck in the U.S. to putting the most battery-operated pickup trucks in America's driveways — directly competing at an unprecedented scale in a multibillion-dollar electric vehicle revolution.
The name of this auto plant isn't sexy, like a new Tesla Gigafactory.
But Ford historians say the the Rouge Electric Vehicle Center (REV-C) site in Dearborn once built warships intended to hunt down German submarines in the fight against fascism. On Tuesday, it will launch the all-electric F-150 Lightning from the same place, soon shipping the trucks to customers for the first time.
"You're living in this moment of history," said Fallon Gates, a Ford communications specialist.
Ford CEO Jim Farley has vowed to prove to the world that a legacy automaker can really compete with a fearless startup like Tesla — which has shown the market for battery-operated vehicles is real, not aspirational.
Success would be especially sweet for executive chair Bill Ford, great-grandson of the company founder, who for years was a lonely voice on the issue of sustainability — and told to change his ways when he challenged his own family and established traditions.
Now, the all-electric Lightning is so popular that Ford froze reservations in December when they approached 200,000. The new factory is already expanding capacity to meet demand for a truck that has thousands of orders spilling into model year 2023, only one year after it was revealed to the world.
The base price is $40,000.
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No one enters the Lightning factory without a security badge. And guards check. Visitors stop next door at the building next to AK Steel and provide identification, get an ID photo taken and official approval to enter.
Visitors are asked to turn off their Bluetooth, hotspot or Wi-Fi access on cellphones to prevent potential interference with factory equipment that uses wireless communication.
When stepping inside the door of the factory, things don't look or sound or feel like the Dearborn Truck Plant nearby where, when operating at maximum production, it can drive an F-150 gas-powered pickup truck off the assembly line every 53 seconds or so.
This plant is different.
Light splashes through the windows.
And it's quiet, as car factories go. There's a palpable lack of chaos.
And there's no conveyor belt or traditional "assembly line" because each new truck moves along on a sled. Officially, they're autonomous guided vehicles or AGVs.
Along the cement floor, there's a dark gray strip that looks like putty has filled in a crack. But that strip is magnetic, and it guides the 100-plus sleds. They roll over a little green box on the floor every so often, which keeps things charged.
These factory workers don't walk or run or chase the vehicles to add parts and do their work on deadline. Instead, each sled comes to a complete stop to the team at each work station. Computer screens are everywhere, many noting 5:30 minutes to do the job before the sled moves forward to the next station.
Step by step, the vehicle is built. There are huge stacks of parts on one side of this electric truck factory — with tires and seats and running boards and instrument panels and glass panels and batteries.
"All the components that make a truck a truck," Gates, who started at Ford a year ago, said as she walked through the plant with a Free Press reporter and photographer one recent April morning.
The battery that powers a Lightning truck is almost the size of a twin bed mattress but much heavier — and lifted by multimillion-dollar robots.
Over in the chassis area, control project engineers Kaleb Vargo and Gabriel Perez sit at a table monitoring everything with computers — how long workers take, where things may need to speed up or slow down. Every detail. All decisions are data driven. Gone are the days when workers leave handwritten notes with feedback for improvements, the engineers said.
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Both Vargo, 30, of Warren, and Perez, 34, of Macomb Township, worked at the Ford plant in Cuautitlán Izcalli, Mexico, setting up the factory that builds the all-electric Mustang Mach-E.
The SUV, which went on sale in 2020, has gone on to win big awards and have solid sales.
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Back in Dearborn, the new 500,000-square-foot factory is designed to build the mass market electric truck, second to startup Rivian. The plant is brightened with high-efficiency LED lights and the Hi-Lo forklifts used to move equipment around are run on hydrogen.
"This is like history to me," Ken Scott, 60, of Detroit, who has worked 25 years at Ford, said during a break at the factory just days before the launch.
'Smooth as butter'
Tomika Cole, 47, of Belleville, is a team leader installing the Lightning truck bed. Things are so very different now at the electric vehicle plant, she said.
"When there's a conveyor belt, you're constantly running," Cole said. "This, now, is better than running with the belt. It made you very exhausted but you did your job. Morale is much better because you get to stop and still have a certain amount of time to perform your job. You don't feel pressured and rushed. Even though you have a timer right there, you're standing still. There's not so much anxiety. And people's energy is high."
She looked down at the dozens and dozens of partially built Lightnings lined up on the flat autonomous guided vehicles and said, "This is the future."
People ask Cole whether she has driven the Lightning.
"They're smooth as butter, and quiet," she said, smiling, as she and other workers waited for a parts delivery.
M'Beindu Lansana, 43, of Southfield, used to be a mail carrier until seven years ago. Now, she's affixing weather strips and passenger door modules in the trim department for the all-electric truck. Fewer colleagues feels more intimate, she said.
"Everything feels different," Lansana said. "It feels like we're going in a new direction."
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After resting a few minutes on break, Steve Hodor prepared to install the truck visor and work with a partner installing the instrument panel. They, too, had 5:30 minutes to do the job, the production floor assistant said.
"People don't understand how hard it is," Hodor said, looking up at the flat screen clocks that are positioned at each station with a timer.
"I used to install 700 carpets a day at the Dearborn Truck Plant," said Hodor, 59, of Riverview, who's coming up on his 25th year with Ford. His dad, a master mechanic, "tore cars apart" for the company until he retired.
This place, this enormous factory, was just dirt a few years ago.
In 2020, Ford announced the $700 million project at the iconic and controversial Rouge complex. And a year later, the thing was built. And now it's being expanded to build 150,000 trucks annually.
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Jeremy Sherman, 44, of Macomb Township, is a team leader for a chassis team. He's in charge of installing high voltage wires that connect everything — sort of the spine of the truck that provides energy to power the vehicle. The wires are encased in orange tubes that wrap through the guts of the drive unit like bright veins.
"The demand is overwhelming," he said. "They're chomping at the bit for this truck. It's a good problem to have. But this is like a whole separate company. I wonder what the future is going to bring."
Sherman, too, described how he used to shuffle his feet or walk backward or run to keep up with parts when he worked on the F-150 engine line.
The launch of this all-electric truck feels a lot like the debut of a new Apple iPhone, said Brian Palmer, 51, of Monroe. He was working on the front area of the truck, where an engine once went, called a frunk.
"This, here, is like being a kid in a candy store and I get to put it together," he said. "I'm happy to be part of history."
Across the plant, standing under the body of a truck suspended in the air by a clamshell carrier and working together on the production line, Michael Haas, 25, of Sterling Heights, and Tyvon Ward, 29, of Detroit, installed running boards.
At the end of the production line, which isn't technically a line but really the last stop on a tour through the factory, is a tunnel of zebra lights that seems like a futuristic design that might be adopted by the Super Bowl one day — to run the players through for dramatic effect. Trucks roll through before getting the battery charged in preparation for delivery.
"It's just amazing," Ward said, "to be part of something bigger than myself."
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