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DEARBORN, November 3, 2000 -- For most of a century, they came to wonder at the Rouge. Heads of state, note-taking industrialists, and hundreds of thousands of third graders on school trips, all came to the only place on earth where they could see the entire auto making process in one day, in one place.
"There was no other place else on earth where you could see the entire process in a single industrial complex," said Jim Padilla, group vice president, Global Manufacturing for Ford Motor Company. "You could watch the giant freighters unloading; the ore and coal going into ovens to make coke, steel and, in another plant, glass; then see the materials formed into parts, panel stampings, and engines; and finally see it all come together on the assembly line and watch the car start and drive away."
The Ford Motor Company River Rouge complex was the largest manufacturing center owned by a single company. Located a few miles south of Detroit, on the Rouge River, a tributary of the Detroit River, the Rouge complex was a mile and a half wide and more than a mile long. The multiplex of buildings totaled 15,767,708 square feet of floor area and 120 miles of conveyors. There were ore docks, steel furnaces, coke ovens, rolling mills, glass furnaces and plate-glass rollers, tire-making plant, stamping plant, engine casting plant, frame and assembly plant, transmission plant, radiator plant, tool and die plant, a power plant producing enough electricity to light a city the size of nearby Detroit, a soy bean conversion plant making plastic auto parts, and, at one time, even a paper mill.
The Rouge had its own railroad with 100 miles of track and 16 locomotives, a scheduled bus network, and 15 miles of paved roads, to keep everything and everyone on the move.
A city without residents, at its peak, more than 100,000 people worked at the Rouge. To accommodate them required a multi-station fire department, a modern police force, a fully staffed hospital, and a maintenance crew 5,000 strong.
More than 6,000 tons of iron were smelted a day, 500 tons of glass made daily... one new car was produced every 49 seconds... and 3,500 mops replaced each month to keep the complex astonishingly clean.
Yet even superlatives failed to encompass the true meaning of the Rouge. For the complex was only the hub of a wheel that enveloped half the globe.
The concept at the core was called "vertical integration," total self-sufficiency by owning, operating and coordinating, all resources needed to produce complete automobiles.
Ford Motor Company owned 700,000 acres of forestland, iron mines and limestone quarries in far Northern Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and tens of thousands of acres of coal-rich land in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Ford even purchased and operated a rubber plantation in Brazil.
To bring all these materials to the Rouge, Ford operated a fleet of ore freighters, and an entire regional railroad company -- all feeding into the Rouge. Continuous flow -- "from earth to assembly" as it was called -- was at the objective of Ford's quest for vertical integration. In Henry Ford's words, the idea was to achieve "a continuous, nonstop process from raw material to finished product with no pause even for warehousing or storage."
Vertical integration was never entirely achieved. At no time, for example, did Ford have fewer than 6,000 suppliers serving the Rouge. Yet it came closer than anything had before or since.
"Fordismus" was the word coined by the German engineers who came to America in the teens and early 1920s to study Ford's approach. Designing for flow and efficiency would become the standard of global industry, and the precursor of modern just-in-time manufacturing.
The story of the Rouge, however, was not one of a master vision with a single grand execution. The Rouge was perceived and pieced together by Henry Ford, a shirtsleeves tinkerer who typically said, "Let's try that and see how it goes."
The Rouge represented a long succession of "let's-try-it" decisions.
The first came with Henry Ford's purchase of the land a few miles from his childhood home in Dearborn, Mich., the same marshlands where he hiked and watched birds as a boy.
Ford began buying the land that was to become the Rouge in 1914. In total, he acquired a 2,000-acre stretch of bottomland along the Rouge River.
By the time he purchased this tract of land, Henry Ford already had achieved much with his astute sense of innovation.
By 1915, Henry Ford had literally "put the world on wheels," with more than half of all the cars on the planet nearly identical Ford Model Ts.
His goal of producing a car that working men and women could afford had evolved through several false starts. After two failed attempts at starting an auto company, he established Ford Motor Company in 1903. For the next five years he went through an alphabet soup of models before developing the Model T.
To drive down the price of his Model T, Henry Ford refined the well-established concept of a moving assembly line, first in the Piquette Street plant in Detroit, then in 1910 at the Highland Park Plant. Thousands of improvements were made to the sequential line concept already well established. He made so many refinements over so long a period, in fact, that no one could point to the precise time when Ford's moving assembly line was born. The Rouge River property was not earmarked for any particular use. Ford had even considered turning the land into a large bird sanctuary. Yet during World War I, Undersecretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt contracted with Henry Ford to use his construction genius to build Eagle Boats -- also known as submarine chasers -- torpedo boats and later PT Boats.
A three-story structure, Building B, was erected in 1917 on the Rouge site to build the boats. Building B was the first substantial Rouge building and serves today as part of the Dearborn Assembly Plant.
While the war ended before the Ford Eagle Boats ever went into action, the effort did allow widening of the Rouge River substantially, presenting the possibility of bringing ore boats up the river.
The war also served to demonstrate just how vulnerable Ford Motor Company was to supply shortages. The Highland Park plant had suffered a number of work stoppages because of supplier failures, and Henry Ford decided he would make his company self-sufficient. Yet there was another motivation. Henry Ford needed to continuously reduce costs in order to drive down prices. As he said, "If those who sell to us will not manufacture at prices which, upon investigation, we believe to be right, then we will make the articles ourselves." The Rouge shipyard soon became the destination of the massive lake freighters filled with ore, coal, rubber, and lumber to supply the Highland Park Plant and later the Rouge.
Next came coke ovens and blast furnaces in 1919. The foundry provided iron, steel, brass and bronze castings. The foundry alone covered 30 acres and was, at its inception, the largest foundry on earth.
While the Rouge would eventually add production of virtually every Model T component including the engine block, Model T assembly remained at Highland Park.
The first vehicles to actually be assembled in the Rouge were not cars but farm tractors.
No sooner had Henry Ford achieved low-cost transportation with the Model T than he set his sites on doing the same for the world's farmers. The Fordson, the first mass produced tractor, was in full production at the Rouge beginning in 1920.
Ford added an immense powerhouse in 1920, which from its first day provided power to both the Rouge and Highland Park. There was so much electricity to spare that Ford provided the City of Detroit a million kilowatts of excess power every day.
A glass plant was built in 1923. Ford was the first to use laminated safety glass in auto windshields beginning with the Model A, and he needed a facility equal to producing it. The new plant rolled out 13.4 miles of glass each day.
The Rouge achieved its distinction of automotive "ore to assembly" in 1927 with long awaited introduction of the Model A. Building B would be the home of assembly operations from that time forth.
Most of these buildings, and several hundred more in the Ford empire, were designed by Albert Kahn, the most renowned architect of his day. While the buildings were designed pragmatically for their manufacturing function, Kahn managed to add a sense of light and air. When the Rouge glass plant was opened, for example, the heavily glass upper walls and ceiling were celebrated as "the single factory that carries industrial architecture forward more than any other." By 1928, the complex was complete, yet never settled. As soon as a more efficient machine or process was found, the old equipment was ripped out and replaced. As one Rouge plant engineer said, "It doesn't matter what the equipment cost to install or how long it has been in operation. We tear out whole departments to make one or two new changes."
Those who toured the Rouge were especially struck by the entire complex's cleanliness. Every floor was scrubbed clean, every wall recently painted, every window sparkled, every locomotive glistened as if on display. Henry Ford demanded absolute cleanliness, and in anticipation of an announced visit, plant managers would close down their entire operations for a day to have everyone cleaning and painting.
One of the great evils of the world, in Henry Ford's estimation, was waste.
Ford recycled or found new uses for virtually all waste products. Waste gas from his coke ovens was used to make tar, benzol, gas for lighting, and other chemical byproducts. Thirty tons of ore dust produced every day was reprocessed and used. And furnace slag was used as an ingredient in concrete for Ford's building projects.
Henry Ford is credited for inventing the charcoal used in backyard barbecues, entirely because he wanted to find a use for growing piles of wood scraps.
The Rouge continued to operate throughout the Great Depression, yet Ford's obsession for ever-increasing cost reductions through methodical efficiency studies made life difficult for workers.
On May 26, 1937, when a group of union organizers led by Walter Reuther attempted to enter the Rouge, the Ford security gang beat them severely. It would be known as the Battle of the Overpass, and became a pivotal event for United Auto Workers and other unions. The Rouge had settled down with UAW representation before World War II broke out. During the war, the giant complex produced the jeep, tanks, trucks, staff cars and tractors. Another key product was the engine for the B-24 Liberator bombers Ford built at the Willow Run Plant
In 1947, at the pinnacle of the Rouge's success, Henry Ford died.
Ford Motor Company began a new evolution that militated against industrial concentration on the scale of the Rouge. It had grown into a highly decentralized world company.
Within 15 years of its founding, Ford had manufacturing plants in Canada, Europe, Australia, South America, China, and Japan. Henry Ford insisted his company "build them where you sell them" and both local content and in-country assembly became Ford's global norm. By the beginning of World War II, Ford had production facilities in 35 states and in nearly 23 countries on five continents.
Henry Ford II and his new team of "whiz kid" managers continued to fully employ the Rouge through the late 1960s, yet they operated in a distinctly different world than had Henry Ford. For one, there was a growing awareness of the environment. In the early days of American industrialization, smoke rising from a stack was a positive sign of full employment. As industry matured, government and manufacturers alike became aware that black smoke had other implications.
Air and water quality standards were developed by government agencies. The more facilities located within a community and accumulatively added to emissions, the more stringent the controls. This, in part, led to the closure of some older facilities. The Rouge, the largest, single industrial complex in the world, probably would be the last of its kind.
Ford began concentrating on what it knew best: its core business of car and truck production. The company grew to rely more and more on an ever-increasing cadre of suppliers, and to methodically extract itself from other fields such as mining, lumbering and glass making.
In 1981, steel-making operations at the Rouge became part of a new and independent company. When these operations were sold to Rouge Steel in 1989, Ford gave up ownership of all Rouge River frontage and boat docks, as well as about 45 percent of the original 1,100 acres.
The number of operations and jobs at the Rouge dropped. Economic pressures mounted to retire old manufacturing facilities and to replace them with state-of-the-art greenfield plants.
Yet the Rouge had evolved into more than a concentration of metal and mortar. It had become a community with a strong sense of its own identity. Generation after generation had worked in the Rouge, and few in the hourly or salaried ranks were willing to walk away from their heritage.
That fact became clear in 1992 when the only car still built at the Rouge, the Ford Mustang, was about to be eliminated and assembly operations in Dearborn Assembly terminated.
The UAW Local 600, in cooperation with Alex Trotman, then president of Ford's North American Operations, set out to keep the Mustang in production, and to keep production in the Rouge. Save the Mustang became synonymous with Save the Rouge. Working together, the company and the UAW established a modern operating agreement and fostered numerous innovations to increase efficiency and quality. The company, for its part, would redesign and reintroduce the Mustang, and invest in modern equipment. Trotman, now retired Ford chairman and CEO, recalled, "Mustang was a team effort with engineers, manufacturers, salaried and hourly people, UAW and suppliers -- tremendous cooperation to bring the entire project together. It's one tremendous example of people changing opposition into opportunity."
The Rouge was making a comeback in 1997. UAW Local 600 membership and the company approved the Rouge Viability Agreement, and the Ford Board of Directors agreed to modernize the company's oldest and largest manufacturing complex. The first efforts focused on extensive renovations to the Dearborn Engine and Fuel Tank Plant and other plants at the Rouge, and an environmentally-advanced paint operation in the Dearborn Assembly Plant. Also plans called for CMS Energy to develop an entirely new power plant by 2000.
Ground was already being cleared for a new high-efficiency power plant when tragedy struck. Number Six boiler at the Rouge Power Plant exploded, six workers were killed, and a dozen more seriously injured.
Within two hours of the explosion, Ford Chairman Bill Ford was at the scene, offering whatever support he could. "Our employees are like extended members of our family," Ford said, "My heart sank. It's about the worst feeling you could ever have."
The outpouring of concern and support across the Rouge was remarkable. Employees throughout the complex took time to give blood, and to offer help from comfort foods to prayers. Tragedy had shown that the Rouge was truly a community.
The Rouge entered the new millennium humbled by disaster and downsizing, yet still an industrial giant. More than 7,000 Ford employees work at the Rouge in assembly, stamping, frame, tool and die, and engine plants. Rouge Steel Company employs another 3,000 people.
Now called the Ford Rouge Center, the 600-acre site remains Ford Motor Company's largest single industrial complex. "A bright future for the Ford Rouge Center is extremely important to us," said Jim Padilla, group vice president, Ford Global Manufacturing. "Our plans call for the largest-ever revitalization of an industrial center in the United States to bring it proudly into the 21st century."