A new Ford factory near Tshwane uses 585 robots and more than 1,000 tools in a highly automated welding and chassis assembly process. The final and largest piece of Ford Motor Company’s R15.8 billion investment puzzle for its South African operations, it introduces a new chassis line, which begins operations in preparation for the production of the Ranger from new generation.
Located in the Tshwane Automotive Special Economic Zone (TASEZ) adjacent to Ford’s Silverton Assembly Plant, the Frame line is the only Ford-owned and operated chassis manufacturing plant in the world. It measures a vast 100,000 m2 and has the most advanced robotic manufacturing and quality control systems currently available.
“Our goal with the next generation Ranger is to achieve the highest production volumes and quality ever seen for the Silverton assembly plant, ensuring that the vehicles we deliver to our customers in Africa and in more than 100 global export markets are world-class in every way,” said Ockert Berry, vice president of operations at Ford South Africa.
“The Ranger Pickup’s ladder frame chassis is essential to its overall quality, performance and durability, whether used as an everyday family vehicle or in demanding commercial applications. Therefore, as with our new on-site stamping plant, manufacturing the frame in-house allows us to carefully monitor and control every step of the production process.
“We have invested in the latest robotic technologies for welding and handling frame components, as well as a fully automated electronic coating system and robotic wax application. Rigorous quality checks are carried out, using advanced inspection and measurement systems, including the sophisticated three-dimensional blue light scanner system, to ensure that there is no compromise in quality .
At the heart of the Frame Line are two identical lines that manufacture these large, heavy steel components, with 15 derivatives produced to support the different iterations of the model, as well as local and export market requirements. A total of 387 hourly and 25 salaried employees operate the Frame Line under a two-shift operating model – all of whom have undergone extensive factory training.
“The installation is 95% automated and relies on 585 robots to assemble and weld the frames,” explains Yetheen Gengan, regional manager of the Frame Line. “We use the latest SKS automated smart welding system with I&K Pulse technology to ensure the highest level of welding accuracy and consistency.
“In addition, we have over 1,000 tools on the lines, including buffers and robotic grippers, which results in a seamless production process that eliminates manual handling and operations that can introduce gaps in the build quality.”
Next to the production area is a sophisticated multi-stage electrocoating facility where the frames are fully immersed in a range of cleaning and phosphate solutions, before being submerged in an electrically charged tank where the paint is evenly bonded to metal. Subsequently, a robotic station applies a protective wax to the inside of the frame to provide rust protection and durability.
Rigorous quality control measures are implemented throughout the chassis line, including in-line Perceptron measurement of every chassis produced in the factory. Additionally, the high-tech GOM ATOS ScanBox blue light scanner system is used to create highly detailed 3D models of the entire chassis or individual sections, with the results compared against a stored design specification.
“With these advanced and highly accurate measurement and scanning systems, we are able to track real-time data to quickly identify and resolve any quality issues before the frame leaves the factory,” says Gengan. “All data is stored in our quality management system to monitor trends, and we can access measurements and imaging data at any time in the event of an issue on any of the chassis we produce.”
As part of the extensive quality checks, the plant also incorporates a weld stripping facility with world-class macro-cutting and etching processes that assess the strength and integrity of individual welds.
Once the frames are finished, they are stored in an underground finished goods area with a storage capacity of 6,000 units. Subsequently, the frames are processed in an automated sequencing facility and moved to the Silverton assembly plant where suspension and brake components, differentials, engine, gearbox, exhaust and fuel tank are installed in sub-assembly areas before being mated with the cab and load. box on the Trim, Chassis and Finish line.
Says Berry: “Having the chassis line located right next to the assembly plant is hugely advantageous, as it not only ensures that the chassis are sequenced on the assembly line in the most efficient way, but it also eliminates handling damage and transporting parts by road all contribute to better quality and greater customer satisfaction.