Plant tours are a regular occurrence in our line of work, but it’s not often you’re asked to actually join the line and help build a car.
Have you ever seen the famous Discovery Channel show, How It’s Made? If not, you’re missing out on some of the best behind-the-scenes television on offer. The team visit both small and large industries to find out how stuff is made. In each episode, they pull back the curtains and look at the people and the machines that build the things we take for granted.
I’ve been lucky enough to see car manufacturing up close many times. It’s hard not to be impressed by how a bunch of different things come together on one large patch of earth in order to create a fully functioning car or engine.
There is a catch, however. Plants function according to a rigid schedule and outside interference is simply not allowed. As a tourist in such a finely tuned machine, you normally stand well away from the action in a little yellow lane used specifically for tours. With minutes literally being worth thousands, the production line doesn’t stop for anybody.
So, imagine my surprise when an invite to partake in Ford’s assembly line landed in my inbox. I reread the article twice to ensure I wasn’t reading it wrong. Ford actually wanted me to come and work on the line in its engine plant in Struandale.
Driving the Ford Ranger from the hotel to the plant, the nerves started sinking in. I’m well versed in servicing a 2006 Honda Jazz in my own garage, but building a modern twin-turbocharged engine from scratch is in a whole different league. It’s like pitching up for Springbok rugby practice after watching the 2019 final against England.
Perhaps I’d be assigned to a menial station where I could do no harm? Like snapping the engine cover in place, or wrapping the engine in plastic to get it ready for the long trip to Silverton?
The morning briefing revealed that this was not the case. My driving partner and I would be assigned to multiple stations throughout the day. Stations where we could do some serious damage and cause unwanted downtime. At least the actual plant employees had performed admirably the previous day, meaning they were ahead of schedule…
This was by no means meant to be a fun tour where the public relations manager would be there to hold our hands. The plant manager, Shawn Govender, production team manager, Ziyaad Isaacs, and human resources were on hand to give us the abridged version of what I’m sure every employee has to go through before being allowed through the gates.
To add a final layer of stress over and above the fear of messing up the plant schedule, Ford’s HR manager asked us to please come back with ten fingers and ten toes. I assumed it was a joke, until I was issued with a hard hat, reflective vest and steel-capped boots. Gulp. Only having nine (or less) fingers would have a drastic effect on my actual day job.
That’s the one thing that gave me some comfort. This was only one day out of my life, with zero repercussions. If I was a bad employee, so what? It’s not like Ford could fire me, or track a shoddy engine back to my poor workmanship…
Tracked all the way
Erm, it turns out Ford can. Not fire me, but track the shoddy workmanship right back to me. Not just on paper, but video as well. On the walk to the floor, my manager for the day, Clinton Moses, explained Ford’s safety and quality systems in depth. Everything is tracked, logged and captured on film. The system is so sophisticated that it can tell my “boss” that I’m taking 34 seconds to complete a task, rather than the usual 25 seconds it takes a well-trained plant employee. If the plant suddenly doesn’t deliver a brand-new Ranger powerplant every 134 seconds, the bosses can check the system to see exactly who’s slacking off. As if that’s not bad enough, the Ford bosses in the USA also have access to the system, so should Jim Hacket, current president and CEO of the Ford Motor Company, be bored at home, wondering what’s going on at his engine plant in South Africa, he can log in and see. The last thing I needed was an international call from the big boss, wondering who the idiot behind the cold test backlog was.
This was my first assignment. Sounds easy, right? Sitting in a cold room to see whether an engine is working properly. The perfect job on a humid, hot Port Elizabeth day. I had scored the golden ticket and was well on my way to my ultimate goal, which was being promoted to plant manager by lunchtime.
But cold testing does not involve a cold room, nor any kind of relief from the temperature.
It’s basically two advanced testing stations, responsible for testing each and every engine assembled on the line.
The multi-million rand machines measure a wide variety of things, but since I was only there for a short time, the operator explained that it was mainly a way to check for unacceptable vibrations and oil leaks.
A few stations before, the engine is filled with eight litres of a special mixture consisting of engine oil and dye.
The cold test station turns the engine over without actually firing it up, therefore the name.
The powertrain is turned over at 120 r/min for a few seconds, after which it goes up to 800 r/min.
Before it can do this, the engine obviously has to be connected to multiple hoses, connecting points and two highly-sensitive vibration sensors. The kind team-leader in charge of the station illustrated it a few times before we were let loose. And as my fist engine came rolling in (a single turbo Ranger 2.0-litre unit) I realised that the only thing I could remember was that the vibration sensors need to go on last and needed to be removed first.
With the help of the afore-mentioned team leader, I somehow managed to find the right sequence. And my engine failed. “Look at what you did wrong and we’ll try again,” said the team leader. I inspected and found one of the sensor plugs wasn’t connected properly. I put it firmly in place and hit the button. Failed again. Turns out I put my foot in the wrong place while the test was being conducted and the sophisticated equipment recognised a hazard and shut it down. On my third attempt, the engine finally got the green light. On the second cold test station, at least three engines had gone through in the time it took me to stumble through one test. My only saving grace was another media team somewhere further down the line, who messed up even worse than me. This slowed down the production, which meant engines were coming in slower. At least I wasn’t the only terrible employee on the floor.
I eventually got the hang of it and slowly processed another three engines. The actual Ford employee on the station next to mine had also processed a few, though I won’t mention how many. Suffice to say that it was a number that made me feel soul-shattering guilt.
It also didn’t help that the employees on the line were all Ford fans.
As an outsider, I had assumed that it was just a job to them. They come in, build white goods they have no emotional attachment to and then go home. Nothing could be further from the truth. The team leader and I were conversing as we went about our day. He’s a big Ford fan and he proudly told me that his brother had the fastest Fiesta in the bay area. It’s one thing disappointing a boss with zero emotional attachment, but something entirely different to disappoint a boss who bleeds Ford blue.
Because of this, I decided to really take the job seriously. In a factory full of people who believe in what they do, you don’t want to be the one guy who doesn’t bring his A-Game.
After an hour spent at cold testing, the supervisor moved my teammate and I further down the line.
There I met another two friendly Ford employees who explained their job. The fully-assembled engines come down the line, at which point we’d be connecting one sensor and loading them up with the eight-litres of oil used later on in the line at cold testing.
I don’t want to say this job was easier, but it was at least something I understood. They demonstrated the installation of the sensor and explained how the oil delivery system worked. There was one hose for single-turbo engines, another hose for the bi-turbo variety.
The big struggle is learning and keeping the rhythm. Step one was loosely screwing the sensor in place and plugging it into the right points. After that you reach the hoses and you proceed to dump the eight litres. The hose takes roughly 30 seconds to dump the eight litres, which (theoretically) gives you enough time to fasten the loosely screwed bolts tight and secure another unrelated cable away from the mounts used to transport the engine. Once that’s done, you secure the oil cap and turn the engine 90 degrees for the next person on the line.
Writing it now, I remember the steps perfectly, but completing them in the allotted time and in the right sequence was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done.
After securing the bolts, I wanted to take ten seconds to stand back and admire my magnificent work, but there’s not enough time for such pleasantries. As soon as one task is completed, your buddy is right there ready to hand you the tool for the next job.
I obviously wasn’t fast enough to keep up with the regular schedule, but the Ford employees astounded me with their adaptability. They understandably used to a particular rhythm and I was a big, noisy tuba messing everything up. Yet they adapted that rhythm to accommodate me. Within two minutes, these guys had worked out how to utilise my presence. I was tasked with manning the hoses and screwing the bolts in properly.
Our newly-employed system was working perfectly and for the first time, I felt like a well-oiled cog in the machine.
Unfortunately, my media colleagues further down the line were not having such a great time, once again holding up the line.
This is where the camaraderie really kicked in. I was warned beforehand that employees on the line don’t take kindly to people slacking. A certain amount of good-natured hazing takes place and I’m reliably informed that the language used can be quite colourful at times. I’d like to stress at this point that it’s not nasty, mean nor demeaning in any way. The people on the line experience it as well-intended motivation, though I doubt it occurs frequently when the plant is operating without a bunch of noobs in the way.
I was encouraged by my fellow workers to partake in said hazing and I did. I yelled down to a station further down the line, spurred on by my new colleagues. “C’mon 160. What are you doing?”
I felt part of the team, partaking in the workplace rituals. I was part of the machine and not a spanner in the works. A few moments later, I was also part of the celebration ritual, which I’m told happens shortly before lunch and when the workers clock out later in the day. It’s nothing more than a spirited cry celebrating the fact that a break is near.
To be honest, I wasn’t ready for a break. I had just found my feet in this place and I was ready to buckle down and make some more engines. But rules are there for a reason. I only noticed how parched and hungry I was after being shuffled into an air-conditioned room filled with finger snacks.
My media colleagues were chatting enthusiastically about the shared experience. Everyone had a newfound appreciation for how a plant operates, even when you introduce a certain amount of pandemonium to the mix.
After lunch, our workday was basically done. Instead of heading back to the line, we were given a special tour by Ziyaad Isaacs, production team manager. We were treated to a video of Isaacs the previous evening, showing him walking the floor he shares with his father who also works in the plant. He talked about the family vibe in the plant, which I though was just a public relations spin until I met the man.
He’s deeply respected by the people who work on his production line and not because they fear him. He’s a genuinely nice guy with a passion for the product, which spills over to the people who work for him. He’s also not afraid to boast about them. He’s eager to tell us about his employees and fondly tells us of woman who works at a station where she has to fix 18 bolts. “She reaches into the box that contains the bolts behind her, moves her fingers a bit and always has the right amount in her hands. Without even looking.”
Isaacs was proud to showcase the quality control, starting with the cylinder heads. These are inspected and photographed before they head down the line. As major components are installed, the process is further logged and inspected. Different parts are colour coded and the assembly line will refuse to move forward unless the right process was followed. I never saw this happen, because, quite frankly, once the actual employees are left alone without media interference, they run as smoothly as a swiss clock.
Our tour of the facilities were cut short, after one of the emergency shut down buttons was activated. A journalist had activated it accidentally and the line stood still for 20 minutes. It was an honest mistake and I take no joy in mentioned in, but it is necessary information in order to understand the implications of a stagnant line.
Later in the day representatives from Ford told us that under normal conditions a 20-minute standstill would be calculated as a loss in production, represented by a figure with a rand value. Those 20 minutes were worth a million. In this case it’s a moot point, because the Ford employees were actually ahead of schedule. Probably in anticipation of our arrival.
For the record, there’s no need to fear buying a sub-standard Ford product in the near future. Our work was quality checked at every turn and one engine even fully rejected because of a bungled inspection process, once again by a member of the media. Those are the rules and Ford takes quality control seriously.
I won’t judge. I botched a cold test inspection three times…
What do you take away from an experience like this?
Well, the first thing is a certain appreciation for a company still willing to invest in South Africa. Given the current economical and political climate, it can’t be easy to sign cheques worth millions. Yet, Ford continues to invest and expand in a big way.
Secondly, an appreciation for how complicated an engine is. I’m astonished how the Struandale engine plant manages to churn them out, one after the other. It’s roughly 300 parts, all coming together to form what we see as a singular unit.
Finally, a new respect for the people building the engines. At the end of the workday, I was standing around waiting for my companion to change when another team leader walked over for a chat. He was a forward chap, telling me we should stop writing that Ford’s products are overpriced. “We work hard in here,” he said.
My sincerest apologies, sir. You see, it’s quite easy to call a Ranger Raptor underpowered when you simply refer to the product of a faceless company. But now that I’ve shared a line with you, I respect that there are hundreds of actual people behind the scenes, working hard on a product they believe to be the best. For one day, I was part of that team and I’m thankful for the experience.
Henceforth, I shall refer to the Raptor as adequately powered.
In addition to building the 2.0-litre engine, the Struandale Plant is also responsible for Duratorq engines:
A key feature of Ford’s Struandale Engine Plant since 2011 has been the component machining and engine assembly for the 2.2 and 3.2-litre Duratorq TDCi engines that are used in selected Ford Ranger and Everest models, and supplied to customer plants around the world.
With an installed capacity for up to 130 000 fully assembled engines, a total of 35 engine derivatives are produced locally, the majority of which are used in the Ford Ranger and Everest, which are assembled at the Silverton Assembly Plant in Pretoria for domestic sales market and export to more than 100 markets globally. Engines are also exported to customer plants in North America, China, Russia, Turkey and Italy – the European plants fitting the 2.2 Duratorq TDCi engine to the Ford Transit.
Approximately 410 engines are assembled each day, five days per week using two shifts, with one engine coming off the line every two minutes.
The Struandale Engine Plant also machines cylinder heads, blocks and crankshaft for the Duratorq TDCi engine, with an installed capacity of up to 280 000 component sets per annum. Approximately 850 sets of components are machined per day. These are used for local engine assembly and are exported to Ford engine assembly plants in Thailand and Argentina.