Plant expansion required $25 million USD investment
The large traditional utility market is a Tahoe/Suburban/Yukon world, and GM has made up roughly three-quarters of the market for quite some time. But the Ford Expedition’s incursion into this territory (and the Lincoln Navigator’s into Escalade-land) has been significant enough to warrant some innovative rearranging of the furniture and work procedures at the plant that builds Ford’s jumbo utes to keep up with demand.
This was not trivially easy to do, as the Kentucky Truck Plant in Louisville (which also makes Ford F-Series Super Duty trucks) has been running pretty much at capacity since the new all-aluminum Expedition and Navigator launched at the end of 2017. But these new utes are finally good enough to give the GM jumbos a run for their money. As a result, demand has risen sharply—retail Expedition sales are up 35 percent (improving market share by 5.6 percentage points, to 17.5 percent) while total Navigator sales are up 70 percent. This greater-than-anticipated increase in demand necessitated a 20 percent bump in production capacity last summer (combined production of the two utes ended up increasing 62.4 percent from 2017 to 2018). And that’s still not enough—the company is rolling out yet another 20 percent increase this summer. How is Ford doing this in a plant that’s officially been “at capacity” from the beginning?
The first increase mostly snatched low-hanging fruit. The management team worked with the folks building the trucks to find efficiencies. They rearranged some workstations and subdivided some assembly procedures to allow the line speed to increase. The forthcoming increase took a bit more doing—and a $25 million USD investment in improving the space efficiency within the final assembly area in this plant, which cannot easily be expanded.
Prior to this recent investment, the doors stayed on the Expedition and Navigator from paint through final assembly. This meant that, during the entire interior assembly process, the line required 5.5 feet of additional width so the doors could remain open. This also increased the time associates spent walking from the parts bin to the interior. Big time-waster. Now the doors part ways with the body and run down their own separate skinny assembly line (as is done in many if not most assembly plants nowadays) and reunite with the body after the interior’s finished.
That alone wasn’t enough, so Ford expanded the line in the vertical dimension. Yes, now there are numerous workstations where pits have been dug out and platforms added to allow some associates to assemble parts to the undercarriage while others are installing things in the same station at “street level.” To fill these extra workstations, Ford is migrating 550 jobs from its Louisville Assembly Plant, 14 miles (22 km) to the southwest. We’ll see if the new fourth-generation Ford Escape and Lincoln Corsair (née MKC) arriving in 2020 prove popular enough to require hiring new workers to replace these folks.
To keep the Expedition sales-pot boiling and ensure those 550 new workers stay busy for the next several years, Ford is rolling out an aggressive ad campaign on national TV (targeting prime audiences like March Madness basketball fans), and in theaters and on billboards in the top ten markets for large traditional utilities. You won’t be shocked to learn that Texas is one of these, and we particularly like the Texan-targeting tagline “Enough room for 80 gallons’ worth of hats.” These ads will play up the theme of “Built to be a better big,” focusing attention on Expedition and Expedition Max’s best-in-class towing, rear legroom, combined fuel economy, and driver-assistance features.
Ford is keen to grab as much market share as possible before GM strikes back with its fully revamped, lighter, more efficient package and space-saving independent rear suspension. It’s equally keen to keep ringing those cash registers—relative to the outgoing 2017 model, average transaction prices for the new Expedition are up $11,700 to $62,700 USD!