The day Ford put us to work in its Port Elizabeth engine factory
Port Elizabeth - Come help us build engines at our factory in Struandale, they said. It will be fun, they said.
Fast forward to a sunny Thursday morning in late February and I found myself in a briefing room at the Eastern Cape engine plant surrounded by fellow journalists who were also dressed in yellow vests and safety boots. You could have cut the tension in the air with a knife. We were going to be deployed onto the assembly line, helping to build actual engines that would end up in actual Ford Rangers, including the Raptor.
There was no shortage of light-hearted speculation about what kind of trouble this could spell for Ford.
After being informed of our fate, we were divided into groups of two and escorted into Ford’s state-of-the-art assembly hall that was built especially for Ford’s new engine programme for the recently introduced 2-litre turbodiesel engines. These units power the Ranger and Everest models, both for local consumption and export, and we would have a chance to work on both the single-turbo and twin-turbo versions.
My partner and I were given an easy introduction towards the end of the assembly line, as our first engine station only entailed filling the engine with eight litres of oil from an overhead nozzle while paying attention to a readout ahead of us. The oil delivery was automated but we still had to avoid dripping any oil onto the engine cover, and of course making sure we used the right nozzle as the single- and twin-turbo engines use different grades.
Next we made our way to one of the cold-test cells at the end of the assembly line, which monitor the operating parameters and pressures of each engine without needing to start it. This was a more complicated task as it involved connecting a series of electrical connectors and pipes to the engine, some in a particular sequence.
This was where I came to appreciate the numerous fail-safes that have been put in place throughout the assembly line, culminating in this stringent test that will not register a ‘pass’ on the adjacent computer unless everything is in perfect working order. Even the NVH (noise,vibration and harshness) levels are tested at this stage. Ford also performs hot tests at selected intervals in other dedicated cells.
During a tour of the remainder of the plant after our little work session, the facility’s plant manager Shawn Govender explained the comprehensive error-proofing and traceability mechanisms that are in place to track and record almost every step of the assembly process. Which, of course, is why they could take the risk of putting us journos on the line.
And then it all went wrong
I was reflecting on all this when things suddenly went ‘code red’ in the plant. One of my fellow journalists accidentally backed into a large emergency stop button on the assembly line, which did just what its name implies. This is just one of the many safety measures employed throughout the line. And sure, you might think it’s overkill to have these large protruding buttons that can bring the whole plant to a standstill with one accidental nudge, but consider that this is a moving assembly line and if a worker gets wedged into a compromising position, time is certainly of the essence.
Speaking of compromising positions, despite the lost productivity our hosts at Ford saw the humorous side of the line stoppage and not only did many of the line workers chant and sing for their unlucky guest but Ford’s Managing Director Neale Hill even put a ‘reject’ sticker on his certificate before handing it to him after the tour. My fellow scribe was an extremely good sport about it all, although he probably won’t live it down before he goes on pension, in a few decades from now.
While the human element is very much alive in this engine plant, I also witnessed some impressive automated processes along the line. The sub-assembly line for the cylinder heads, for instance, features four automated robotic stations that fit components with the ultimate in precision. There are four more robot stations further down the line, which apply the room temperature vulcanising silicone gaskets on key components.
All in all there are 110 work stations along the 312-metre-long assembly line, with 96 operators per shift all working towards a goal of 320 engines per day, which is one every 134 seconds. And that’s just the new 2-litre diesel engine, of which nine derivatives are built. The Struandale plant also produces the older-generation 2.2 and 3.2 diesel engines for Ford’s commercial vehicle range. Add it all up and the plant produces 35 different engine derivatives. Most are used in the Gauteng-assembled Ranger and Everest, but motors are also exported to all corners of the globe, including Europe, North America, China and Russia. Furthermore, the plant sends machined components, such as heads, blocks and crankshafts, to engine plants in Argentina and Thailand.
So how many engines can they actually make in Struandale? Ford says it has an annual capacity of 130 000 fully assembled engines and it also has the ability to produce 280 000 component sets.
I honestly can’t count how many assembly plant tours I’ve attended during my years as a car journalist, but this ‘tour’ stood head and shoulders above the others in my memory bank. It is amazing how much more immersed you become in the experience when you’re actually doing some of the work, as trivial as our contribution might seem.
It was a humbling and memorable experience, but I am also happy to be back behind the keyboard.