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September 17, 2020 12:15 PM, EDT

Ford Builds Its Most Advanced Factory to Make Electric Pickup

The Ford Rouge assembly plant stands in Dearborn, Mich., on May 18.The Ford Rouge assembly plant stands in Dearborn, Mich., on May 18. (Emily Elconin/Bloomberg News)

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Ford Motor Co., facing an onslaught of competition for its new battery-powered F-150 pickup, unveiled the high-tech factory that will produce the electric truck using self-driving transport sleds and robots collaborating with human workers.

The plant is going up inside Ford’s 92-year-old Rouge complex in Dearborn, Mich., and will be the “most advanced facility we’ve got in the world,” manufacturing chief Gary Johnson told reporters in a briefing Sept. 16. The autonomous sleds will transport truck bodies from one station to the next, while robots help assemble the vehicles. The factory is scheduled to be completed next summer and begin building prototype electric F-150s.

Ford is spending $700 million to overhaul its Rouge complex as it wages a pitched battle to maintain decades of dominance in the pickup segment. On Sept. 17, it began building a redesigned version of its gasoline-fueled F-150, the company’s biggest money maker. Though it sold almost 900,000 F-Series trucks last year, Ford is playing catch-up with more recently revamped versions of its primary rivals: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV’s Ram and General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet Silverado.

The second-largest U.S. automaker also is seeking to stake a substantial claim to the emerging market for electric trucks, which has seen a rash of new entrants, including Tesla Inc.’s Cybertruck, Rivian Automotive Inc.’s R1T and Nikola Corp.’s Badger.

Ford said its electric truck, set to go on sale in 2022, will be the fastest and most powerful pickup it has ever produced. The automaker cast its competitors as “lifestyle trucks,” saying the electric F-150 will double as a mobile generator capable of powering a job site or the driver’s home.

“This isn’t a gimmick,” Chief Operating Officer and future CEO Jim Farley was scheduled to say during a ceremony at the Rouge on Sept. 17. “It’s a workhorse, not a showhorse destined for a shiny garage filled with four other luxury cars.”

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The automaker’s research found “very substantial demand” that “focused on the work customer,” Kumar Galhotra, Ford’s president of the Americas and international markets, told reporters Sept. 16. “It was enough for us to make this investment both in the product as well as the factory.”

The new 500,000-square-foot Rouge Electric Vehicle center will create 300 jobs and also produce a gasoline-electric hybrid version of the F-150 that will go on sale sooner than the electric truck.

The two electrified models represent the future of the F-Series, according to the automaker.

“It sets the Rouge up with a long-term vision with new technology and battery-electric products with our most important vehicle,” Johnson said.

Ford shares pared a gain of as much as 1% to trade up 0.4% to $7.04 as of 9:43 a.m. in New York.

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