Ford to build $3.5B EV battery plant in MichiganFord Motor Co. plans to build a $3.5 billion electric vehicle battery plant about 100 miles west of Detroit that would employ around 2,500 people (Feb. 13)(AP video: Mike Householder)APSince the 1800s, people have said “using a fine-toothed comb” to suggest close examination, looking for even the tiniest hair out of place. And those are also the words used by a top Ford engineer to describe what the launch team is doing with 2023 Super Duty pickups coming off the production line.These trucks are the vehicles with the highest profit margin for a 120-year-old company working to slash billions of dollars in recall and warranty costs that have bruised the financials. Every little mistake means less money to fund the pivot from gasoline-powered vehicles to battery-powered vehicles.Pressure is intense, workers say. Every detail matters.While Ford CEO Jim Farley has assured Wall Street analysts things will improve, engineers say behind the scenes that they’re walking the factory floor to be certain. Their presence is not unusual during a launch but the level of scrutiny is. All Ford trucks are built in the U.S. by UAW members, Farley emphasized in a recent interview with the Detroit Free Press.”We make 100% of our trucks, the most profitable vehicles, in America. Others can’t say that,” he said.Paul Murray, a senior power train engineer who specializes in transmissions, began his career 32 years ago and has worked on the Ford Mustang, Ford Probe, F-150 hybrid and Super Duty. Now he’s part of the 2023 Super Duty team and what he’s seeing and experiencing with quality review is unprecedented.”We’ve launched a lot of great products,” he told the Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network. “But this is not like another project. Today’s market is critical. You’ve got to get it right. When I go to bed, I lay in bed and think, ‘How can I fix this? How is this not right? What do we need to do?’ And the solution will come to me when I’m laying there. It consumes you because we’re incorporating this new launch process, this initiative for quality.”He continued, “It’s the very first time we’ve looked at every inch of the truck and had all these engineers look at it with a fine tooth comb” — the whole interior, electrical system, every harness and cable and brake tube.More: Ford execs cut their own performance bonuses after weak 2022 earningsWhat Ford is doing now is called early production tryouts, tooling tryouts, going through all the different versions of the build. The company invited the Free Press to see in person changes at the plant in Louisville, but the plan was postponed because of a mass shooting in Kentucky.’Good enough is not good enough’When engineers go to the Kentucky Truck Plant in Louisville or Ohio Assembly in Sheffield, engineers have spent over a year working lots of extra hours. A resident engineer from every division, whether seats or trim products, engine, transmission, sheet metal — all have subject experts on site at every plant.”They’re making calls every day about what to do. If there’s a supplier defect, how to manage it,” Murray said. “These products are critical. Quality is critical. Good enough is not good enough. We have got to exceed expectations. We’re pushing hard.”Hundreds of Super Duty trucks are built as part of early production. Murray said more than 600 vehicles had been carefully reviewed with three-hour quality checks, at least.Super Duty trucks are vehicles people use to make a living, often pulling huge trailers that carry things like bulldozers. The team creating this product began in 2019 with the quality push begun in 2020 with the powertrain and now it’s expanded from the front of the truck to the back, Murray said.His father, an electrical engineer who served in the U.S. Navy on an aircraft carrier during World War II, refused to tolerate less than stellar work.”He turned me into the person I am today,” Murray said. “He was very meticulous and fussy.”That discerning eye is now invaluable during the early production review, he said.Artificial intelligence, cameras as part of quality checks nowIndustrial engineer Rochelle Rainford-Miller has been at Ford eight years, and her Super Duty experience is unusual, too.”This is a lot more slow-paced in terms of jobs per hour,” she said. “Ultimately, the goal is to make the best quality vehicle. That’s always in the back of my mindset. With this particular launch, we’ve invested more time in training the quality inspectors to ensure that all the connections are made.”Every step of the process is entered into the system so that issues are identified in real time and addressed.”It is definitely a lot more different,” Rainford-Miller said. In prior launches, the quality inspector would have to stroll through and enter defects into a system. On this go around, we have invested a lot more in graphics, touch-screen data entry. It goes faster.”Cameras are strategically placed throughout the plant to capture information that might not be caught by the human eye, a huge change with the Super Duty launch, she said. It monitors electric components, connections, compared to historical data. An inspector on the door line is watching everything for potential adjustments. Paint application is monitored.”There’s no waiting to the end of the line,” Rainford-Miller said.Finding mistakes is celebratedLubna Hetherington, the engineering lead for Super Duty interior and powertrain, focuses on vehicle hardware and seamless production. She was the first member of the team on this latest Super Duty, having been at Ford for nearly nine years.”My parents asked me, ‘What’s the different between a Super Duty and other vehicles I’ve worked on,” Hetherington told the Free Press. “In my opinion, the Super Duty is not only a truck but it provides the customer with their livelihood. It provides function, durability and amenities in the truck to give them what they need to work, travel and be comfortable. I didn’t realize what a truck girl I was until I got on the Super Duty team. I was a sport utility person.”Whether it’s testing the towing strength or figuring out where to put the buttons and knobs and displays and storage. Rear seat storage bins are critical because it’s where ranchers store their gloves and tools. Ford has added more charging stations for cell phones and ports around the console. Cupholders are bigger.Engineers celebrated finding quality oversights because that’s the whole point, Hetherington said. “We’ve done an extensive amount of work to mitigate quality concerns … making sure this vehicle comes out as perfect as possible.”Priced from $45,000 to $90,000This new Super Duty has seen record orders since the bank opened Oct. 27 that will keep factories busy for months.Within five weeks, the company had 151,870 Super Duty truck orders that will take an estimated five months to build. The vehicles are listed as a sale after delivery.From January through November 2022, Super Duty production averaged approximately 26,000 to 27,000 vehicles per month, according to the Ford’s investor affairs website.The Super Duty pickup has a base price of $43,970 (plus $1,795 in destination fees) that often climbs past $90,000, depending on amenities selected by the buyer. Options include type of engine, wheels, tires, cloth or leather interior, display screen size and massaging seats.’Crucial to funding'”The Super Duty is Ford’s bread and butter,” said Sam Fiorani, vice president of global vehicle forecasting at AutoForecast Solutions. “This, along with the F-150, is where all the money is made at Ford. If the company is going to make a transition to EVs, having the money come in from Super Duty and F-150 is crucial to funding that move.”Competition with GM and Stellantis for full-size trucks has never been so tight, and GM often wins quality awards, so Ford is smart to do what it takes to maintain customer loyalty, Fiorani said.Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst at Guidehouse Insights, a market intelligence firm, said the profit margins on the big trucks are “just enormous” and where the automakers will see competitive gains.Ford plays a key role in building DTE bucket trucks, ambulances, airport shuttles and other essential commercial uses, he said. “They lead that market and want to continue to lead that market.”Ford quality in recent years has worsened, and product launches are often problem areas so the new protocols can only improve things, Abuelsamid said. “They’ve had a lot of recalls, and another one just the other day on Ranger and Bronco for loose lug nuts. I mean, that sort of thing just shouldn’t be happening ever. It’s really critical for Ford to get its act together. They’ll have a bunch of new products over the next three years and they need to make sure those vehicles are good from Job One. They don’t want to risk recalls.”In fact, quality is the one area that legacy automakers can cite when breaking into the EV market, because Tesla has been criticized for manufacturing flaws, he said. “People say traditional manufacturers know how to bend metal and build products and they understand what needs to be done.”If recalls continue with EVs, it forfeits a potential advantage for Ford and others, Abuelsamid said.”Now is the time for them to demonstrate,” he said. “When you’ve committed to spending $50 billion or more on the transition to electrification, the last thing you can afford to do is squander another $2 billion or $3 billion on warranty costs.”More: 2023 Ford Super Duty engineer made dream come true after teacher laughed at itMore: 2024 Ford Mustang chief engineer learned to drive on a Mustang GT stick, reveals futureMore: She is chief engineer of all-electric Ford F-150, leading a revolutionContact Phoebe Wall Howard: 313-618-1034 or Follow her on Twitter @phoebesaid.