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CHICAGO — Ford plans to pump $1 billion into retooling the Chicago Assembly Plant in Hegewisch and the Chicago Stamping Plant in Chicago Heights so they can start producing the all-new rear-wheel-drive Explorer, Police Interceptor and Lincoln Aviator.

The Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker plans to hire 500 more auto workers for assembly line jobs at its sprawling automotive factory on the banks of the Calumet River.

The 95-year-old Chicago Assembly Plant expects to complete the hiring by May so it can start manufacturing the all-new model of the Explorer, the first major redesign of America's all-time best-selling sport utility vehicle since 2011.

“We are proud to be America’s top producer of automobiles," Ford Global Operations President Joe Hinrichs said. "Today, we are furthering our commitment to America with this billion dollar manufacturing investment in Chicago and 500 more good-paying jobs. We reinvented the Explorer from the ground up, and this investment will further strengthen Ford’s SUV market leadership.”

Ford will employ about 5,800 workers at its two local plants once the hiring is done.

"Ford's announcement of 500 additional jobs and over $1 billion in plant investments is a testament to the quality and hard work of UAW Ford members,” United Auto Workers Ford Department Vice President Rory Gamble said. "Every day UAW Ford members head to work, proud of the products they build and the craftsmanship required in vehicles like the Explorer, Aviator and Police Interceptor. Ford’s investment announcement demonstrates a commitment to the dedication of UAW members in Chicago."

Ford is building a new body shop and paint shop at the Chicago Assembly Plant, its longest continuously operating plant in the United States, and adding new stamping lines at the Chicago Stamping Plant. As part of the investment, it will install more advanced manufacturing technology, including 3D printed tools and a robot with a camera to inspect electrical connections.

The automaker also is investing $40 million into improvements to workplace conditions, including new break areas, cafeteria upgrades, enhanced parking lot security and new LED lighting.

It's Ford's largest investment at the Chicago Assembly Plant since 2015, when it invested $900 million and hired 200 more workers to make a new Explorer model.

The massive automotive plant supports many just-in-time automotive suppliers on the South Side and in Northwest Indiana, including the Lear Corp. seat-making factory in Hammond.

“As Chicago continues to strengthen our diverse economy, Ford’s commitment to add 500 jobs and infuse nearly a billion dollars into their Southeast Side assembly plant is a vote of confidence in our people and our future,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said. “The assembly plant is a local and regional economic engine where iconic American brands like the Lincoln Aviator and Ford Explorer are built. This investment is a testament to the strength and vibrancy of Chicago’s manufacturing sector, and I look forward to Ford’s presence in our city for generations to come."

Ford employs more hourly autoworkers in the United States than any other automaker. It was the No. 1 producer of vehicles in the United States last year, cranking out nearly 2.4 million vehicles.

“The Explorer isn't just Ford Tough, it's Chicago Tough,” Emanuel said. “We bought 2,100 cars made in Chicago for our police department because they're made here. These are jobs that support middle-class families.”

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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.