This is nail-biting stuff to the impromptu vehicle assembler. One mistake and the entire line halts.
This is nail-biting stuff to the impromptu vehicle assembler. One mistake and the entire line halts.
Image: Supplied

An electric car contains about 200 parts and requires less of a workforce and about 3.7 man hours to assemble. Hybrids and conventional petrol cars on the other hand consist of 1,000-plus parts and require more labour, and 9.2 and 6.2 hours respectively to build.

Shifting to EVs has had a profound impact on employment in the automotive industry. These thoughts of job security swirled in my mind recently when I and a couple of other automotive journalists joined Ford Motors SA’s engine building workforce at the company’s Struandale engine plant in Port Elizabeth.

It’s not only carmakers like Ford who will feel the effect of the shift to EVs. Apart from the 1,000 plus engine assemblers here, think of the rest of the workforce at the company’s vehicle assembly plant in Silverton, the many dealerships, supplier chains and transporters, and you will realise the sheer number of hands it takes to eventually park a shiny new Wildtrak in your driveway, and how much money it takes to keep them employed.

The many facets of the automotive game are fascinating and bring into sharp focus the industry panic when the economy doesn’t do well and few cars are sold, as well as the importance of a reliable energy grid.   

Ford’s Struandale facility has been used to build many of Ford’s engines in the past. These days the 3.2l five-cylinder and newer four-cylinder single and twin-turbo diesels are produced there for both domestic and export markets. They also build engines specific to a few European markets and destined to power cars like the Ford Transit, which is the UK’s best-selling commercial van.

My first task involved grabbing a packet of shiny cam followers and inserting them into cylinder heads, quickly followed by guiding a mechanical presser that’s equipped with a camera to check the work, then lubricating oil plugs before inserting them into the cylinder block.

Later I moved on to a feed a machine that seals off the engine head, readying it for precise application of torque on the nuts and bolts in the following work station.

What is impressive is the highly digitised line that combines the deft touches of robots and human hands. The amalgamation is staggering as each detail is verified using scanners that know which part goes with which item to build a certain car or specification.

The engine parts that are destined for the Ford Ranger are assembled on the move, with all of the different items designed to be ready in their correct places in the engine at the same time. Each worker has about 120 seconds to complete their task before the engine moves by conveyor belt to the next station.

Quality is assured through the use of intelligent cameras that monitor the work in minute detail and integrated in that two-minute window. A slightly skewed cam-follower and the quality nanny immediately rejects the shoddy workmanship, halting the entire line process while invoking cheerful jeers from the workforce.

It’s nerve-wrecking work for the uninitiated but the employees are quite used it and they were always at the ready to jump in when the screws tighten in my chest. In the end I calculated that at least five Ford Rangers will hit the road with my inputs. Any comebacks should be directed to Ford Motors SA though.     

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