Workers at Ford's Chicago Assembly Plant have checked the quality of a vehicle's paint job basically the same way since the plant opened in 1924 — by eye.
But the factory is now getting a new 3D-imaging system that uses 16 computer-controlled cameras to detect the most microscopic grains of dirt in the paint. The automation does not replace any workers but instead lets them focus less on scanning for imperfections and more on buffing them out.
Cameras take 3,150 images of a vehicle in 15 seconds. The digital pictures are stitched together into a three-dimensional image and compared to a computer model of what the perfect-surface finish would look like. Workers are alerted to any dirt in the paint or other irregularities they should polish out.
Recent advances in computing power have made it possible to create a digital composite of photos in the 39 seconds a vehicle passes through the paint-inspection station on the assembly line, said Tom Dougan, a Dearborn, Mich.-based project manager for Ford's global paint applications. Such a system would not have been practical to install five years ago.
The dirt detection system — which was first developed by a university in Spain — is the latest example of new technology at the South Side Chicago plant, which makes the Explorer, Taurus, Lincoln MKS and police interceptors.
This year, Ford is expanding the technology to three more plants, including Chicago. The goal is to eliminate the particles of dirt that are the most common complaint about a vehicle's appearance.
The new equipment was first installed at the Chicago plant in July and is currently being calibrated. The system is expected to be up and running in two to three weeks, and the vehicles made with the new technology should reach dealership lots in the next few months, said Ford spokesman Chris Varones.
In recent years, the automaker also has adopted new technology such as 3D printing, freeform stamping and laser inspections.
Many Northwest Indiana residents work at Ford's Hegewisch plant, which is just a few miles from the state line. Two auto parts suppliers in Hammond — Lear Corp. and Contract Services Group — also feed the factory with parts so it can churn out the hot-selling Ford Explorer and other vehicles.
Ford and other domestic automakers have been working for years to automate factories more, make processes more efficient, and develop more advanced systems for detecting flaws, said Jerry Conover, who directs the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business.
Detroit-based carmakers have increased attention to quality largely to ensure repeat business, Conover said. They have achieved notable results, including a recent Consumer Reports Magazine endorsement of the newly redesigned Chevrolet Impala as the best sedan it tested this year.
"The perception of quality is something the marketers have fun with," he said. "But the reality is that it seems to be improving."
High tech drives auto longevity, loyal customers
Ford Motor Co. recently invested $100 million globally in new laser technology aimed at improving vehicle quality, and the Chicago Assembly Plant at 126th Street and Torrence Avenue was one of the first factories to get it back in 2011. The company is not disclosing how much is being spent on the new dirt-detection technology, but the investment is significant, Ford's Dougan said.
"All the car companies are making investments in technology," he said. "Everyone is pushing to make the cars as perfect as they can."
Cars now stay on the road for 11 years on average, so cultivating customer loyalty is crucial to make up for less frequent purchases, Dougan said. Ford has had an 82 percent increase in customer satisfaction with paint finishes since first rolling the new technology out a year ago at plants in Dearborn and Louisville, Ky.
Engineers at the Polytechnic University of Valencia conceived of the 3D-imaging system, which they developed at a nearby Ford plant in Spain over a period of seven years. Ford then commercialized the design and plans to keep it as proprietary technology to maintain a competitive advantage.
"The human eye used to measure the end result, but there are ergonomic difficulties, eye strain, and workers staying on their feet all day," Dougan said. "The operators used to spend 70 percent of their time scanning and 30 percent repairing defects. Now they spend 10 percent of their time scanning and 90 percent of their time finessing the vehicle."
Buffing out flaws in the paint is an inexpensive fix that can be done at a dealership and is covered by the warranty, Dougan said. But customers know the paint finish never will be as good as when it first comes out of the factory, and the appearance colors how they think of their cars.
"We've gone beyond the days of rust buckets," he said. "Customers are demanding more."