With F-150 Lightning, Ford Makes Industrial History — Again — at ‘The Rouge’

Ford is rapidly laying down the path to the future of the automobile, but in a strange way the new journey is wrapped in its past. That makes for a striking contrast — and promise — in Ford’s revolutionary strategy as the company accelerates production of its F-150 Lightning all-electric pickup truck in Dearborn, Michigan.

As I write for Chief Executive this week, a peek inside the Lightning factory like the one I got recently is jarring for a number of reasons. Instead of a traditional assembly-plant layout where conveyors lug around heavy and massive internal-combustion powertrains and ergonomically assisted assemblers place them in the chassis, the Lightning factory puts individual vehicles on skids called autonomous guided vehicles that simply glide from one cluster of workers to another. The Lightning powertrain is a bed of lithium-ion batteries that lies at the bottom of the machine.

The digital dashboard that workers use to track the manufacturing process looks like a really fun video game; ultimately, there will be no paper attached to each unit as it goes through the assembly process. Already, the largest collaborative robots in the world work side-by-side with human assemblers at the plant. The streamlining and flexibility involved in the plant layout and production process means that Ford can accomplish in 500,000 square feet at the Lightning plant what requires one million square feet at the adjacent plant where the company makes the traditional F-150.


More Than a Truck


And as Ford has begun allowing outsider access to the plant, managers manifest the most excitement when they demonstrate a capability of the Lightning that has nothing to do with historic truck attributes such as horsepower, payload or durability. They showcase how the new vehicle’s onboard electric generator can power up another vehicle or can alone keep an entire house lit up and even air-conditioned during, say, a grid outage.


“You can’t overestimate the importance of this,” Patrick Soderborg, Ford e-powertrain systems engineer, told my small tour. “There’s never been a system like this where you could use a truck to go help people.”

The other thing that gets plant denizens most juiced is showing off a “trunk” space in the front of the Lightning, under the hood where a traditional F-150 would have its engine. The huge compartment can handle up to 400 pounds of stuff and has a drain at the bottom in case owners want to use it as a cooler for a “frontgating” party.


Yet the repurposed space where Ford has begun to produce its paradigm-busting Lightning is literally ensconced in the bowels of the company’s century-old River Rouge complex a few miles from corporate headquarters. To get to the new plant that is upending decades of manufacturing, you’ve got to drive by and through a textbook full of American industrial history. “The Rouge” once was the largest integrated factory in the world. And it’s the site of the legendary “Battle of the Overpass” in 1937 in which United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther and his organizers were physically beaten by Henry Ford’s security forces.


“There’s history here, but there’s a new history we’re creating now,” said Chris Skaggs, planning and implementation manager at what’s known at the Rouge Electric Vehicle Center.


Same Place, New Legacy

Indeed, by placing the F-150 plant within the Rouge, Ford is saying practically as well as symbolically that its transition to becoming primarily a maker of electrically powered vehicles will build on Ford’s legacy at the same time the company is sweeping away much of it.

CEO Jim Farley signaled to the world that Ford Motor Co. was serious about this transformation when, in May of last year, he confirmed the company quickly would finish developing and produce a battery-powered version of its F-150 franchise — the nameplate that is associated with Ford above all others; the platform that generates its biggest profits; and the workhorse that has been the best-selling vehicle in North America for more than 40 years as a gasoline-powered proposition.

Seven years ago, Ford executives were concerned about the reaction of F-150 owners when they switched the truck body to aluminum from steel to save 750 pounds. Similarly, they were on edge in 2019 when Ford announced a new all-electric sports car would be called Mustang Mach-E, though it bore no mechanical relationship to the fabled Mustang “pony car.”

But by flipping the switch on an all-electric version of the true F-150, Farley was taking a far bigger gamble than either of those. Then recently he doubled down on Ford’s investment in an all-electric future by announcing the company’s investment in $11 billion in new EV and battery plants in Kentucky and Tennessee.


Only time will tell whether Farley guessed right about how the Lightning might win over some traditional F-150 fans and, also important, extend the nameplate’s appeal to wider audiences. But his decisions already have fomented a revolution in automotive manufacturing, and the most important early fruits of that movement are rising out of the ashes of Ford’s first industrial revolution.