With the launch of the new Freelander, Ford’s Halewood plant has come back from the brink of disaster to become one of best examples of quality manufacturing the company has
In 1990 it was the subject of a $1 billion investment for the revised and final Escort. Two years later it gained Ford Q1 quality certification and, just 12 months after that, Halewood in Britain’s Merseyside became the first Blue Oval plant in Europe to achieve ISO9000.
But by the middle of that decade it had all gone disastrously wrong. The site plummeted from the pinnacle of perfection and was sinking in a quality quagmire. From being among the best, it had become the worst plant in the whole of the Ford empire.
Plagued by labour problems and frequent strikes, things were so bad that many within Ford’s senior management believed it was inevitable that Halewood would be shut down.
However, as he shows me round the new Land Rover Freelander 2 line, Operations Director Thomas Klein says things at Halewood have changed. Around 2,500 employees are now based there and Klein is very proud of the Premier Automotive Group Lean Learning Academy which trains managers from PAG companies across Europe in lean manufacturing principles and processes. Halewood has also adopted the Ford Production System, which employs lean techniques and tools such as Kaizen, 6-Sigma, 5S, Value Stream Mapping and Yamazumi boards.
“At one time Halewood had the worst quality in the Ford Group but it’s made tremendous strides forwards,” says Klein. “I was part of this culture change and I don’t like to go too far back in time, but Halewood was the worst plant, not only in the UK, but in the whole Ford empire.”
Klein says there was a plan in the mid-90s to close the plant following the planned cessation of Escort production in 2000: “[The move to close it] was more or less set up at the time because we sometimes had a couple of hundred strike days in one year and so it was seen as a plant that should be not be allowed to continue to operate.”
But sited as it was in a region of high unemployment and deprivation, Ford executives may have faced even bigger problems had they decided to shut the plant down. For not only did they decide to keep it going, they also decided to build the new Jaguar X-Type there.
The challenges were complex and plentiful. Ford’s main emphasis had long been on productivity, cost and quality, says Klein. Jaguar’s were the same, but largely in reverse order.
Using Ford’s then new product development tool, the Gateway Process, as a model, an agreement reached with the unions defined milestones to be achieved within a set deadline. The overall programme only proceeded to the next ‘gateway’ stage after a previous milestone was reached.
“The decision in late 1997 to transform a Ford plant and culture to a Jaguar plant, that was a big, big change,” says Klein. “It’s not a change that comes overnight. Right from the beginning you have to have a strategy to change the culture. This might take 18 months and you need to do certain things. We changed the leadership in the plant; every single manager in the plant was changed. With new leaders and a change in culture, and making sure that these new leaders understood what they had to deliver, we thought we had a chance of success. And it was also completely new for the workforce, which was the first key element.
“The second, key element is that we had to gain the trust of the trade unions and you have to have somebody able to facilitate it and support it, then you can roll out the scheme in the whole plant.”
Klein admits that when he moved to Halewood in 1998, no-one on the shopfloor would speak to him: “They didn’t even look at me. They were doing something (I would not describe it as work) during, the day but there was no communication at all.”
However, after 18 months, the strategy to change attitudes began to work. It was completely different. Everybody wanted to talk to me, to show me what they were doing, to share an issue with me and ask for support.
It was a massive change and I had not been sure that we could achieve the necessary changes. For example, with robots or something to do with technology, you can find a solution and it’s about the time and cost to implement that solution.
“However, culture change is difficult, so we had sort it out and try to get rid of those that refused to support the changes.”
Remarkably, this whole period of change at Halewood – the background behind it, how it was implemented and how it succeeded – has become a case study for MBA students at the INSEAD Graduate School at Fontainebleau near Paris.
“The deadline for the culture change was the start of production for the X-Type in 1998 and during the culture change programme we continued to produce the Escort,” says Klein.
Such was the complete change at the plant and the improvement in quality that the last Escort to roll off the line, on 21 July 2000, was the best ever built by the plant.
“It was such an enormously hard time for myself, that I will never forget it. It’s still fresh in my memory. It was either change or die. Importantly, the unions understood (though not all them),” says Klein.
Jaguar X-Type job one rolled off the line in February 2001, followed by a diesel versions 12 months later.
By 2003 the plant had been awarded the JD Power Best-In- Class Paint Appearance, a title it retained in 2004 and 2005. That same year, Ford announced that Freelander 2 would be built at Halewood and in October last year the first Halewood-produced Land Rover rolled off the line.
“From a manufacturing point of view, I like to repeat what my bosses and the customers have told us,” says Klein. “The response from them was absolutely outstanding: ‘It’s the best launch ever, with excellent preparation from the plant side’.”
However, quality – or more accurately, a lack of it – had been an issue with Freelander 1 at the Solihull plant in the Midlands, the spiritual home of Land Rover. There, labour relations had sunk so low that the management had a battle on its hands just to prevent operators accidentally damaging leather trim with watches and belt buckles.
At Halewood there are 283 suppliers for Freelander 2 (24 of which are based in the North West) providing 3,250 parts, none of which is shared with X-Type.
“The internal logistics team faced a huge challenge in managing parts delivery and lineside storage for two completely different vehicles with no commonality along the same production line, and with limited space available,” says Klein.
A best-in-class flow racking system has been introduced lineside, which is claimed to provide improvements in space utilisation, ergonomics and layout flexibility.
All stock is delivered lineside just-in-time, managed by a control system utilising radio frequency technology. Operators needing more parts simply press a call button which sends an electronic request to the appropriate market place location for a linefeeder to fulfill the request.
Large-box parts employ a new delivery process that uses a demountable cassette mechanism, which in turn locks into position lineside. According to Klein, this innovation has driven efficiency improvements in the linefeed process. Some parts, such as completed body-coloured bumpers, are delivered lineside in the designated sequence by the supplier and match up with the vehicle dropping down to point of fit.
In the press shop, 88 new die sets produce 127 parts, with a total of nearly 300 sets operating through 11 fully-automated lines generating an annual volume of 15 million parts.
Ultra-high strength dual-phased steel is used more extensively in Freelander 2 than in any previous Land Rover, requiring special pressing because of its strength. This is used for the A-posts, lower sills, cant rails, front side members and dashboard.
The steel is a high-carbon alloy which combines good crash safety performance and low weight, while new robot welding guns allow operators to tailor it for optimum weld integrity on individual spot welds. To handle this dualphase steel, a 2,800 tonne press has been installed together with robot automation to facilitate high-speed throughput, while all components are quality assured using the latest Zeiss 3 dimensional measuring technology.
The body plant area has been doubled by the construction of a new body in white line for Freelander 2 that uses 100 per cent, double-sided zinc-coated steel panels, as part of the most advanced anti-corrosion and paint treatment ever used on a Land Rover.
Two hundred and sixty-five ABB robots deliver 99 per cent spot weld automation through over 4,500 spot welds to every Freelander 2 shell, joining together 420 key panels.
The two main quality metrics for the bodyshop are weld and dimensional integrity, says Klein. The dimensional integrity of every vehicle is measured during production by Peceptron laser scanning machines on the framing and underbody lines. These new machines are said to be more efficient than those employed in X-Type body construction that use 54 lasers fixed to the ‘black box’, each measuring only one point. Now, on most measurement points there are control limits of plus or minus 1mm; anything outside this will automatically stop the line.
Weld integrity is checked by destructive and non destructive tests. During the latter, panels are physically prised apart and the location and strength of the welds checked. A full body teardown is carried out every month, while non-destructive ultrasonic scanning is employed to check the integrity of each weld. Freelander 2’s framing line is completely automatic and even the roof is added to the vehicle without any manual assistance.
In a first for Jaguar and Land Rover, the framing robots use lasers to check sealer is present and in the correct positions. The vehicle’s body shell and main components are mounted on special flexible pallets which interact with the welding robots to communicate the correct pattern and location of spot welds to be applied. This new system is best practice within Ford and a record of which pallet each individual vehicle is built on is logged in order for cross referencing if there is a quality issue further down the line.
Halewood’s paint shop features a single-flow production process, where Freelander 2 and X-Type are painted along the same line sharing a common process. And, as part of the overall paint modifications, due to the increased body size and weight of Freelander 2, a new multi-million pound electrocoat paint system has been installed.
The EPS’s easily accessible spray rings and automatic dosing of chemicals has increased safety and quality.
It is also providing environmental benefits such as reduced energy and water usage, according to Klein.
“The new process ensures the box sections have adequate paint coverage, which is a key measure for Land Rover’s corrosion requirements,” he adds.
A new facility, which applies 34 individual points of wax to the box sections of the cars, has also been installed. “This wax is the final protection that helps to deliver the Freelander’s 12-year anti-perforation warranty and three year cosmetic paint warranty.”
Painted car bodies are delivered to trim and final area from an automatic storage and retrieval system tower located at the back of the plant. The cars are built up in a sequence informed by customer specifications and a shipping panel attached on the front fender tells the operator which components to fit.
Trim and final assembly is a doors-off build. Each vehicle’s doors are removed and mounted on special carriers at the start of the process. The vehicles then follow a 3km overhead track. Various glazing, electrical and trim components, such as the instrument panel and bumpers, are installed along the line.
The powertrain is assembled on a separate line and attached to car body through an underbody marriage. Wheels and seats are then fitted to each vehicle on the final line and doors are refitted.
Since Freelander 2 and X-Type go down the same line in trim and final, the area’s roof has been strengthened to support increased vehicle weight and the C carriers have been modified to accommodate both models.
Alan Volkaerts, Trim and Final Assembly Manager at Halewood, concedes that Freelander 2 is a more complex vehicle then its predecessor.
“The vehicles we’re building now feature very high levels of electronic gadgetry. A lot of the components that used to be high-end vehicles’ optional content, like sat-nav, are much more popular now and they all have data buses that transmit data between all the systems. So from a technological point of view, Freelander 2 obviously presents a challenge in terms of manufacturing.
“Cleary, we sell the Freelander 2 to many different countries. For instance, we sell cars to Japan which have sat-nav systems programmed in Japanese. It’s a challenge [because] we have to build a really high quality car that is derivative for all the territories we sell it in.”
However, apart from quality, from a plant perspective Volkaerts says that the real challenge offered by Freelander 2, in terms of trim and final assembly, was to build it and the Jaguar X-Type on the same line.
“We did a lot of things early on and realised a number of years ago, that the guys who really know how to manufacture the car efficiently and at the required quality levels are the guys who build it. So two years before we launched the vehicle we freed up about 30 people in my area, for example, who worked as product specialists with the engineers down in Gaydon on the design of the car.
“The guys that went down there obviously had a lot of knowledge about how to build X-Type and they used all that knowledge when they sat in front of the CAD screen alongside the engineers to say ‘that will work’, or ‘that won’t work’.
“From an electrical integrity point of view the launch of the car has been a fantastic success, since it has many more electrical connections than the outgoing model.”
The key, according to Voelkrts, is to design the process and the product to work together so the operator can achieve a very high quality easily: “With connectors, for example, a guy pushes a connector that might have 60 pins and we design the connector so that they have a scoop.
This means the lead-in is very simple for the operator and that, when the two parts go together correctly, there is an audible click.”
A final word from Klein: “I’m very much a quality driven person. The volume you can always make up, but if the quality is not good you lose customers. So we had a major focus on the quality side and we delivered both – outstanding quality and volume.”