Ford shifts direction at transmission plant

April 05, 1992|By Mike Casey | Mike Casey,Cox News Service

BATAVIA, Ohio -- At Ford Motor Co.'s transmission plant, signs that say "Beat Toyota" dot office cubicles and factory walls.

Ford is doing more than hanging signs at the 1,400-employee suburban Cincinnati plant. The company has committed $450 million to retool its automatic transmission plant and has adopted new business practices to help make compact cars that Ford hopes will stand up to the best Japanese competitors.

The No. 2 automaker made its dramatic comeback in the 1980s in part by emphasizing styling, such as its aerodynamic look for the Taurus. But the carmaker didn't update the hardware beneath the sheet metal, particularly transmissions and engines.

That left Ford at a disadvantage against some Japanese cars that are quieter and get better gas mileage. Their four-speed automatic transmissions, says auto industry analyst Maryann Keller of Furman Selz Inc. in New York, are "virtually a standard offering."

Now Ford is shifting gears. It's upgrading the Batavia plant, which now makes antiquated three-speed transmissions, to produce four-speed automatic transmissions for its compact cars.

The Batavia project is part of Ford's $5 billion program to replace all engine and transmissions it produces in North America by 1995. Ford hopes the capital improvements will keep it a step ahead of Toyota.

Specifically, Ford wants to make its new compacts to challenge the Toyota Camry, a leader in the compact class, says James E. Buhr, Ford's project manager of manufacturing and plant engineering.

Batavia's new transmissions tie in with Ford's plan to introduce new compacts in the 1994 model year. These compacts, yet unnamed, will replace the decade-old Ford Tempo and Mercury Topaz, whose market share declined to 2.6 percent last year from 2.9 percent in 1986.

That decline might seem insignificant, but it translates into 30,000 cars a year in a 10-million-unit-a-year market, or about $400 million in sales.

The four-speed transmission will offer better fuel economy than the three-speed version because an overdrive gear will allow the engine to run at fewer revolutions per minute. The fourth gear will reduce engine noise at high speeds, Mr. Buhr said. The company declined to give exact figures on improvements in mileage and noise levels.

Ford also is using its investment in Batavia to make the facility more efficient. "In this program, it's important to find a new way of doing business," Mr. Buhr said.

One step was redesigning Batavia's 1.7 million square feet of floor space. The number of docks has been tripled so that parts can flow more smoothly. With the improvements, manufacturing capacity will be increased 10 percent to 550,000 transmissions a year.

Production of the new transmission starts next January, with the first ones going to Ford in Europe. The transmissions will be used in the new Ford Probe, Mazda 626 and new compacts.

The company bought 400 new machines, some with advanced computer monitoring screens, to produce the new transmission. Backhoes are cracking the plant's cement floors to dig holes to set up the new equipment.

Meanwhile, hourly employees gather in quiet training centers to learn how to operate the next generation of machinery. The advanced training will help workers start up production faster with fewer mistakes, Mr. Buhr says.

The effort to beat Toyota isn't related only to investments in heavy machinery.

To demystify the aura that surrounds Japanese manufacturing, Ford this year and last year sent about 100 hourly and salaried workers from Batavia to Japan to tour Mazda's transmission plant. Mazda and Ford have a long history of cooperating on projects.

Steve Abner, a United Auto Workers union member who made the trip, says workers' eyes were opened to the fact that the Japanese plant wasn't as technically advanced as those in the United States.

But Mr. Abner and the others discovered that the Mazda plant had one distinct advantage: Japanese workers work better in teams than their American counterparts.

Building teamwork among workers in Batavia is crucial to the success of the new transmission. Mr. Abner is helping expand Batavia's existing team program to help make the plant more efficient and competitive.

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