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Chicago Assembly Plant transitioning to all SUVs without layoffs like GM

A Ford Explorer is driven off the assembly line at the assembly plant in Chicago. The plant is transitioning to an all-SUV lineup.

Ford is transitioning from the production of sedans to an all SUV slate at the Chicago Assembly Plant in Hegewisch next year, but it's doing so without the mass layoffs GM is plotting as it shifts to larger vehicles like pickup trucks and SUVs.

General Motors drew a firestorm of criticism last week after announcing it would idle five factories and lay off 14,000 workers in North America. GM is following Ford's lead by switching emphasis to larger, higher-priced and higher-margin vehicles.

Ford announced in April it would phase out most of its cars and move small car production to Mexico, where the lower-margin vehicles can be produced more cheaply because of lower labor costs. But the Dearborn-based automaker was able to do that without mass layoffs because it long ago updated its factories so they can produce different vehicles on different platforms.

In 2004, Ford pumped more than $800 million into the 94-year-old Chicago Assembly Plant on the bank of the Calumet River and the nearby Chicago Manufacturing Campus. The investment retrofitted the sprawling 2.8-million-square-foot plant with a flexible manufacturing system, allowing it to simultaneously produce a variety of different vehicles, including the Ford Explorer, Ford Taurus, Lincoln MKS, Police Interceptor utility and Police Interceptor sedan.

Then, in 2015, the automaker decided to invest another $900 million to modernize the Chicago Assembly Plant and $200 million to upgrade the Chicago Stamping Plant in Chicago Heights, which supplies it with body panels.

Now Ford is looking to phase out production of the Taurus at the South Side plant after years of declining sales. Instead, it will start making the Lincoln Aviator, a midsize SUV.

Ford spokeswoman Kelli Felker said there would be no impact to the workforce, which now totals 5,290 between Hegewisch and Chicago Heights. Workers will start making the Aviator SUV instead of the Taurus sedan next year.

"Aviator is expected to be in dealerships next summer," she said.

Ford invested in the multi-platform manufacturing systems at the Chicago Assembly Plant and its other factories so it can quickly adjust its production at different plants to whatever consumers are buying.

"We have been matching production capacity to consumer demand for many years," Felker said.

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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.