Ford is making a massive gamble with its upcoming 2015 F-150 pickup, and while customers aren’t expected to start receiving orders until February, there are plenty of critics who don’t believe the company will be able to handle the pressure.
The biggest challenge will certainly be the F-150’s use of aluminum body panels — which help contribute to a 700-pound savings from the current generation — and how quickly they’ll be assembled. In a story in Automotive News, author Bradford Wernle says Ford is using “… a far more complex technique that uses a combination of rivets and industrial adhesives,” and while the company developed the process back when it owned Jaguar Land Rover, “those English factories don’t approach the line speeds Ford must hit with its most profitable vehicle — 60 jobs an hour.”
While Ford’s President of the Americas, Joe Hinrichs, is confident that the company is on track despite the complexity, he does admit “…there’s not a lot of buffer, trust me. Because every day we don’t build F-150s means a lot. No one has been given a lot of extra time. We have laid this out hour by hour, day by day. We have all the company’s resources at our disposal. There’s nothing more important than this.”
Hinrichs’ comments refer to the fact that full-size pickups are one of the most profitable vehicles going, with some analysts figuring Ford clearing as much as $10,000 on higher Platinum and King Ranch trims.
While experts from places like AutoPacific and Morgan Stanley are all focusing on the big unknowns regarding things like procurement, testing and line speed, Jay Baron, president of the Center for Automotive Research, has 30 years of body shop experience, and listed several big issues regarding how aluminum behaves compared with sheet steel.
“Aluminum is less formable than steel,” he says. “You can’t bend it as much. The window on the process is tighter. Since we’re in a high-volume market, we can’t slow down the process that much.”
Other potential issues Baron cites include aluminum needing to be much cleaner when worked with, the possibility of aluminum splintering when stamped, and that Ford will be using an incredible number of different ways to join the parts together.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s 10 to 15 different kinds of rivets,” he says. “I estimate crudely the cost of joining materials are roughly double the cost of joining a spot-welded vehicle.” And that doesn’t include the extra effort and cost of inspecting the rivets to ensure a perfect mushroom shape. “Once they get it all debugged, it will be much better quality [than spot welding],” Baron concluded.
Ford is hoping to avoid the numerous recalls that surrounded the recent launches of the Escape SUV, Fusion and Lincoln MKZ back in 2013, which is why it appears to be taking a much more conservative approach with the F-150.
“We’re cautious for a reason,” explained Hinrichs. “We haven’t turned the switch on in that body shop yet. Until we do, we won’t know exactly where we are.”