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CHICAGO — Sparks shower like fireworks as robots weld undercarriages. Workers tighten bolts as crane-suspended sport utility vehicles pass by overhead. Men and women scurry everywhere in a frenetic buzz of activity that culminates in shiny new SUVs driving off the line, their tires squeaking on the cement floor.

The assembly line is rumbling along again at the Chicago Assembly Plant. The plant was shut down in March for a massive retooling so the facility can make the all-new 2020 Ford Explorer, Police Interceptor Utility, the new 2020 Ford Police Interceptor Hybrid SUV and the Lincoln Aviator.

Ford invested $1 billion at the Chicago Assembly Plant on the Calumet River in Hegewisch, just across the state line and at the Chicago Stamping Plant in Chicago Heights. It's hired 500 more workers at the automotive plants.

The Dearborn-based automaker has increased its use of advanced manufacturing at the plants, adding 600 more robots, 500 new error-proofing tools on the assembly line, and two 3D printers. The latter have enabled it to produce some parts in-house instead of ordering them from suppliers at a much greater cost.

“This reflects American ingenuity at its finest,” Ford Automotive President Joe Hinrichs said. “In the first five days of the transformation, the team moved the scrap metal equivalent to the weight of the Eiffel Tower from the plant, making room for new equipment. Knowing this plant is set in a city and trucks could not go in and out of the plant at all hours, the team got creative and rented a barge, put all of the scrap metal on it, floated it a mile up the river to a recycling center, then moved in more than 500 truckloads of new technology.”

In March, Ford stripped the body shop at the Chicago Assembly Plant down to the concrete floor and completely rebuilt it, replacing outdated machines with newer technology. It updated the paint shop, added a collaborative robot with a camera to inspect electrical connections and changed nearly all the operator workstations in the final assembly area to make them more ergonomic. 

“This plant is 95 years old, but it’s just like new,” Chicago Assembly Plant employee Robert Washington said. “I love to see the products we build out on the roads. It makes me very proud.”

The investments at the Chicago Assembly and Stamping Plants included employee amenities like cafeteria upgrades, new LED lighting and more break areas so workers don't have to walk as far when they're on break. 

Ford now employs about 5,000 auto workers at the Chicago Assembly Plant and another 1,200 at the Chicago Stamping Plant.

“Our UAW members in Chicago are very serious about building these vehicles with quality,” United Auto Workers Ford Vice President Rory Gamble said. “Ford’s investment in the Chicago plants is important because it secures the jobs of our nearly 6,000 UAW members in the area, which is critical not only to their families but to the communities in which they live.”

The plant, where workers are represented by United Auto Workers Local 551, produces the police vehicles and Explorer — America's best-selling SUV over the past 29 years — for the domestic market. It also exports the new Lincoln Aviator to China.

Crown Point resident Ken Martin, who's worked at the Chicago Assembly Plant for 25 years and manages quality control of Lincoln vehicles there, said he was optimistic the new slate of vehicle models will sell well.

"We're very excited," he said. "The investment benefits not just the plant but the community. They say every job here supports seven jobs out in the community because of the money we spend at stores, restaurants and other businesses."

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.