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Chicago Assembly Plant will shut down for month as it switches to new Explorer model

The Ford Explorer at the 2019 Chicago Auto Show at McCormick Place. The Chicago Assembly Plant will shut down for a month as it retools to make the new model rear-wheel-drive model of the Explorer.

CHICAGO — Ford already has hired 200 new auto workers at its Chicago Assembly Plant in Hegewisch, which will be retooled this spring for a new platform for the new, rear-wheel-drive Explorer, Police Interceptor and Lincoln Aviator.

The Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker will shut down production at the Chicago Assembly Plant for an entire month when it invests $1 billion into a new body shop and paint shop there, as well as new stamping lines at the Chicago Stamping Plant and new technology at both plants. 

"We're in the process of building the early builds of what we call our prototype vehicles at the plant," Chicago Assembly Plant Manager Jim DeMartino said. "We needed to free up the senior people so we could put them over to build the new vehicle."

Ford said it ultimately will create 500 new jobs, mostly assembly workers who will be represented by the United Auto Workers. The company agreed to at least $900 million in investment and 200 new jobs in its last contract with the union in 2015.

"We go through many different avenues to get people," DeMartino said. "We have employment agencies and online advertising. You have to pass a test. There's screening and orientation."

The hiring will bring employment at the sprawling 96-year-old automotive factory on Chicago's south side to about 4,800 hourly workers. The cavernous factory has been running a full three shifts around the clock for years. 

"We're currently building a front-wheel-drive vehicle," DeMartino said. "The new Explorer is rear-wheel-drive. So that means a whole new dynamic on how it goes together. Because of that there are different operations we have to add in to take care of the rear-wheel-drive."

At the end of this month, Ford will cease production of the current Explorer, the Police Interceptor Utility, the Taurus and the Police Interceptor Sedan. It will shut down the entire month of March to retool the plant and then start making the new Explorer, Police Interceptor Utility and Lincoln Aviator in April, DeMartino said. 

The major investment is needed because it's a whole new model of Explorer and the plant will build the Aviator for the first time, DeMartino said.

"We gut the entire body shop. We bring in all new equipment. And we start back up again," he said. "Most of the investment is in the facilities. We've got all new sheet metal. It's a whole different design. The way the metal goes together is all brand new. There's new automation going into the paint shops. Plus, I have a whole brand new engine line and front-end and rear-end subassembly areas."

As a result of the protracted shutdown, the Chicago Assembly Plant will shorten its traditional summer shutdown to one week this year instead of the normal two weeks, DeMartino said.

The Chicago Stamping Plant will continue operating during that time because it also serves other Ford vehicles like the Mustang, Plant Manager Salih Ahmad said.

The plant in Chicago Heights will get 14 new lines and 36 new sets and dies in March, but keep running lines during that time.

"We'll still be running product for other customers," he said. "We won't be completely down. The Explorer will obviously be down, but we'll still be running materials for the Transit and the Mustang. We've got other customers."

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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.