Local auto manufacturers and parts suppliers took shorter breaks this summer, so that production could keep pace with revved up sales.
Automakers always take breaks during the slower summer months, but The Chicago Assembly Plant in the Hegewisch neighborhood idled for only a week instead of the traditional two weeks this year, in order to keep cranking out hot-selling vehicles such as the Explorer.
Ford sales are up by 13.9 percent so far this year, and the Detroit automaker has gained market share for the first time since 1993. The company expects to produce an additional 40,000 vehicles by halving the break time at most of its North American facilities.
As Ford's Chicago plant goes, so go the suppliers. The ramped-up production volume led to shortened shutdowns at three other local factories: The Chicago Stamping Plant in Chicago Heights, Lear Corp.'s seat-making facility in Hammond and Contract Services Group's seating sub-assembly plant, also in Hammond.
In all, the truncated breaks at the end of June and the beginning of July affected more than 6,200 workers across Northwest Indiana, the south suburbs and Chicago's far south side.
The Chicago Assembly Plant is a just-in-time facility, meaning that suppliers send parts immediately when they're ordered and don't build up stockpiles. Suppliers such as Lear Corp. have to mirror the plant's operations to keep feeding them the parts that go into the cars, within hours of when they'll be installed, Lear Corp. plant manager Michael Segvich said.
Workers at the Chicago Assembly Plant make the Lincoln MKS, the Explorer, the Taurus, and the Police Interceptor versions of the Explorer and the Taurus. The Explorer has been flying off dealership lots, with a 25.9 percent increase in sales so far this year.
"The Explorer is the gift that keeps on giving," said Erich Merkle, Ford's U.S. sales analyst.
The plant at 126th and Torrence Avenue in Chicago has had to add a third shift and about 2,200 employees to keep up with demand, said Carlo Bishop, president of United Auto Workers Local 551. The factory now employs about 4,100 workers, who are working around the clock seven days a week.
Currently, the plant is running at full capacity and has had to change how workers take breaks to keep the assembly line running non-stop throughout the day, Bishop said.
Workers used to take breaks en masse for about 30 minutes in the morning, for lunch and in the afternoons. The assembly line shut down each time.
But the plant now has to churn out so many vehicles that such mass breaks are no longer possible, Bishop said. Instead, workers take staggered breaks, and relief workers spend their day filling in at different positions on the line.
Traditionally, all the workers also took vacation at the same time during the two-week-long summer shutdowns, when skilled tradesmen would come in and perform preventative maintenance to all the machinery.
Newer workers who hadn't accrued enough vacation time yet often had to file for unemployment for a week or – if they just started a few months earlier – for the full two weeks, Bishop said.
But now they won't need unemployment to keep food in their cupboards, and the workers with enough earned vacation time can take another week off or days off here and there later in the year, he said.
Some workers prefer to be able to spread their vacation time out, and the need for more production is a good problem to have, Bishop said.
"It's good to have that much volume in sales," he said. "We're doing pretty good."