We take a tour of Ford’s Kansas City facility as well as the massive underground city that houses some of the plant’s suppliers.
The Transit’s first steps
Putting the pieces together
Moving down the line
The sides go on
Moving into place
Raising the roof
A chassis cab takes shape
Waiting for glass
Ready to go
And away we go …
Up and away
Welcome to SubTropolis!
Not your average highway
White is “green!”
Ready for work
- The Transit’s...
- Putting the...
- Moving down the line
- The sides go on
- Moving into place
- Raising the roof
- A chassis cab...
- Waiting for glass
- Ready to go
- It’s instrumental
- And away we go …
- Stopping power
- Happily married
- Up and away
- Let’s roll
- Welcome to...
- Not your average...
- Want more?
- White is “green!”
- Inside Knapheide
- Ready for work
Having been sold in Europe for nearly 50 years, the Ford Transit is now coming to North America as a replacement for the E-Series van. It’s being built at Ford’s Kansas City facility and we had a chance at an inside peek at the plant, as well as a place we’re guessing you never knew existed: a massive underground city that houses some of the plant’s suppliers.
Here’s an overhead view of the welding line, where you can see the Transit’s floor beginning to take shape. The plant, which is actually in Claycomo, Missouri, opened in 1951 to build aircraft wings, and transitioned to automobiles in 1957; models like the Falcon, Comet, Fairmont, Tempo and Escape were all built here. It recently received a $1.1 billion investment for Transit and F-150 production.
The plant covers almost 437,000 square metres and employs 5,148 people alongside the robots. (You won’t see many of them in these photos, but that’s because we preferred to give them privacy while they were working; the factory isn’t as empty as it appears.)
Until they’re finally on their tires, the Transits move on pallets or overhead conveyors throughout the assembly process.
Two robots on either side of the underbody pick up the van’s massive sides, put them in place, and bend their tabs to hold them steady before the vehicle moves forward for more assembly. Once the sides are on, a massive robot, nicknamed Godzilla, picks up the roof panel and places it on top.
A closer look at the sides as they’re moved into position. Three “framing” robots will finish the job by welding the side panels into place, and adding the roof bows.
With its sides in place, a van automatically moves forward, waiting to receive its roof panel. It will eventually be lifted to the second floor, where the paint shop is located.
Not all Transits get the full-body treatment. The company also makes cutaways and chassis cabs, made up of just the chassis and cabin. These go to aftermarket companies that make special bodies for them, turning them into vehicles such as ambulances.
Windshield installation is automated at this plant. Rather than run the urethane around the glass, the sealant nozzle is fixed, and a robot spins the windshield—yes, even one that large!—around the nozzle. It then inserts the glass into the opening.
Painted and with their glass installed, two Transits start the journey toward final assembly. These are moving sideways, pulled across by the chains in the floor.
Dash pads are lined up and ready to go, with the appropriate steering wheel for each one hanging above it. Each van has a build sheet, and employees use the sheets and bar codes to ensure that the correct options and features go into each one as ordered.
The van is still just a shell at this point, waiting to receive its driveline. That happens on the other side of the aisle, but first, it has to get across it. Colour-coded markings on the floor direct traffic in the plant, including pedestrians, forklifts and other work vehicles, and of course the vans themselves.
As in most assembly plants, many of the Transit’s components are made by suppliers, and then shipped to the factory to be installed on the car. Wait until you see where some of the Transit’s suppliers are located!
When the driveline and vehicle come together, it’s commonly called “marriage.” Here, the engine, transmission, driveshaft and rear axle come in on an automatically-guided platform, while the Transit’s body arrives via an overhead carrier. See those yellow squares under the engine and rear axle? Check them out in the next photo.
They lift the driveline up, while the Transit’s body comes down to a height where workers can start to screw everything together. The sheets on the door and rear quarter contain the truck’s codes, so it all comes together correctly.
Finally equipped with its tires, a Transit makes its way through the final stages of the assembly process, and the testing it will undergo before it’s finally driven out for shipping to a dealer.
Not too far away from Ford’s factory, you’ll find the Hunt Midwest Business Center, a massive industrial complex that, along with other tenants, contains many of the automaker’s suppliers. Much of it looks like any other business complex—at least, the conventional part that’s up top. Then you enter here, and everything changes. (This photo by David Freers, courtesy Ford Motor Company.)
Advertised as the world’s largest underground business complex, SubTropolis is housed within an old 1940s limestone mine. It encompasses almost half a million square metres of leasable space (with the capacity to go to almost three-quarters of a million), and is serviced by 10 kilometres of paved, lighted roads, and more than 3 kilometres of railroad track.
These limestone pillars are 7.6 metres across, and there are more than 10,000 of them. They hold up a 3.6-metre ceiling; over top of that are the natural layers of limestone, shale, more limestone, and then 3 metres of soil.
More than 50 companies are located in SubTropolis, with some 1,500 employees. There are 1,500 parking spaces, along with more than 400 truck docks—necessary since some 300 trucking companies pick up or deliver within the underground complex.
There are some disadvantages: everything has to be artificially lit, and while there is WiFi, there is no cell phone reception inside. But companies don’t pay for heating or air conditioning. This far underground, the temperature stays at a constant 21 Celsius year-round, whether the outside world is broiling or freezing.
This is what it’s like to run your business underground. One of SubTropolis’ tenants, in a section known as Automotive Alley, Knapheide started as a wagon-building company in 1848, and when Ford first got the idea to turn its Model T into a truck, Knapheide built some of the bodies. Today, still owned by its original family, it makes custom bodies, and upfits trucks and vans with shelves, racks, and other equipment.
This Transit probably spent just a small portion of its life so far above ground, before it came here to be turned into a “KUV,” or Knapheide Utility Vehicle. SubTropolis isn’t just for vehicles; companies also use it for secure warehousing, record storage, food and refrigerated supply storage, light-duty manufacturing, and printing. As neat as the Transit’s production story is, you ain’t seen nothing until you “dig a little deeper!”