Every Ford engineer’s goal is to make drivers feel that their vehicle is an extension of themselves—the perfect blend of human and machine. That desired synergy doesn’t start with a customer’s experience with a Ford model. In fact, it begins with the manufacturing process. Since 1913, when Henry Ford developed the first assembly line to mass produce automobiles, the company has produced developed the world’s premiere vehicles by bringing together the best people and machinery in manufacturing and getting them to act as one.

Lazer Brazing is one of the latest technologies at Oakville Assembly Plant

Ford Canada Steps Into The Future

Nowhere is that truth more apparent than at Ford Canada’s Oakville assembly plant, which is building the all-new Edge global utility vehicle and shipping it to more than 100 countries. The company has pumped $700 million to expand the facility and turn it into a flexible, advanced manufacturing location, creating 1,400 new jobs in Oakville as a result of the investment.

“The decision to produce the all-new global Edge in Canada is proof that Canadian manufacturers can compete, and win, on a global-scale,” said Dianne Craig, president and CEO, Ford Motor Company of Canada, Limited. “We’re ready to showcase Oakville Assembly’s commitment to craftsmanship and advanced manufacturing to deliver what our global customers want and value—a high-quality vehicle with class-leading design, fuel efficiency and performance.”

Besides being good for the bottom line, at the heart of these types of plant investments lay commitments to improve worker safety. At the Oakville plant, for instance, new employees get hands-on training in an assembly line simulation classroom before they hit the fast-paced manufacturing floor.

3D printing is used by an ergonomist to validate hand clearance in vehicle assembly

Virtual reality, computer modelling, powerful bots boost human performance and increase worker safety

Similar high-tech training approaches across the company and research in assembly line modelling and ergonomics have led to facility improvements and a 70 per cent decrease in employee injury rates since 2003. Ford’s in-house scientists use full-body motion capture, 3D printing of proposed builds and immersive virtual reality to generate huge amounts of data that measure safety long before employees get to work building a new type of vehicle.

“We refer to our assembly line employees as ‘industrial athletes’, due to the physical nature of the job,” said Allison Stephens, technical leader for assembly ergonomics. “We have made data-driven decisions through ergonomics testing that has led to safer vehicle production processes and resulted in greater protection for our employees.”

Industrial athletes are more than just jocks, though. In today’s advanced manufacturing world, flesh-and-bone employees stand shoulder to shoulder with silicon and metal counterparts. The 1,250 robots working at Oakville, for instance, now almost match the number of newly hired human employees. The robots have been upgraded with state-of-the-art vision systems and control software to expertly weld, apply urethane coatings to glass and install hoods, panels and doors.

But whoever said that machines would make humans obsolete in building things hasn’t seen a modern Ford plant. Human employees are being trained to work with the machines and robot labour frees them from the most physically demanding, repetitive and dangerous tasks. Similar changes and improvements are happening across Ford’s manufacturing operations.

In April, Bruce Hettle, the company’s vice president of North America manufacturing told CNN Money that a typical plant today can have 500 or more robots doing an array of heavy lifting jobs as well as repetitive ones like fastening parts together.

“You also see many employees doing lighter assembly work, quality evaluation and a lot of the vehicle testing,” Hettle said. “We believe our workforce is essential to the manufacturing process—we really don’t see a world where we would ever be completely machine or robotic based. We do see a world where there’s a mixture, and that’s what we have today.”

With investments in the world’s finest automaking workforce and the tools they use to turn out top-ranking cars, trucks and SUVs, the perfect blending of human and machine isn’t just happening behind the wheel of Ford vehicles. It’s happening every day at Ford assembly plants right here in Canada and around the world.