“I’ve been around a little bit,” says Don Pijor, talking fast, over the honking of newborn Ford F150s. The finished trucks are turning a corner, single file, on their way to final inspection at the 2.6 million square foot Dearborn Truck Plant at Rouge Center. Workers swimming in union seniority drive the vehicles onto a runway where many cameras give each a last once-over.

Pijor, the plant’s launch manager, makes sure the trains run on time. And there are a lot of trains—one truck comes off the line every 53 seconds, in one of  650,000 buildable combinations. Truck bodies ride assembly lines, roller-coaster style, up several stories and are then lowered by robots to meet their frames below in a satisfying (and surprisingly quiet) mashup.

Pijor has managed a team of engineers at Dearborn Truck since 2005, and before that held management posts at the Kentucky Truck Plant and the Ohio Assembly Plant. “So I’ve seen some of the older plants as well as the plant we have here, which is state-of-the-art,” he says. “It exponentially goes through the roof in terms of complexity.”

A dozen years’ spent at the plant haven’t dampened his enthusiasm for its larger-than-life robot choreography. “There’s a couple things you notice here,” he says, explaining in-line vehicle sequencing, the plant’s just-in-time setup. “You don’t see a ton of material on the floor. The material gets here in time for that product. We have over 80 commodities that come in sequence to the plant. That’s everything from the instrument panels to the wheels and tires, to the seats, to the rear suspension modules. All the way to something small, like door handles.

“Those parts come in in sequence, in the order that the operator puts them on the truck. He just grabs the next part, and it’s the next truck coming down the line.” Suppliers learn three weeks in advance “what order we’re going to build that truck in.”

If vehicles are taken off the line for welding joint verification or get out of order in the paint shop, the whole setup can go awry. So after the paint shop and before final assembly, robots store vehicles in an automated storage and retrieval (ASR) building.

“It’s like a mailbox with pigeonholes,” says Pijor. “It holds about 600 trucks.

"And the robot puts them in there, and because there’s so many, when they come back into final, it puts them back in the same order they left the body shop.”

The ASR robots always looks for the oldest cab. “So let’s just say I’m a red supercab with a moon roof with wheeler poles. It will look through the whole ASR, and if there’s two red supercabs that are identical, it will take the oldest one. Even if one got there before the other one, it always takes the oldest one and switches it virtually.” (Vehicle Identification Numbers are “soft” and can be changed up through this point.)

“If you’ve ever seen like in a college library where they put books on the shelves, it’s that on steroids. It’s six stories high, and there are five robots on a track. Zzzup zzzup zzzup, it just goes in and gets them, and pulls them out.”

Know Your Forklifts

In final assembly, the doors come off and go on a separate route, meeting up with the finished vehicle at the end of the line. Materials for final assembly are transferred from a forklift to a wheeled pallet, then brought into the infield—where forklifts aren’t allowed, to prevent accidents—with a tug or tow motor, “then the tug operator gets off and physically pushes it into the line by hand.”

Pijor says the Dearborn plant is much quieter than other plants he’s worked at. “You remember old gas stations, you hear that whine of the tools—we don’t have air tools in this facility,” says Pijor. The DC electric tools in the plant also “don’t have that kick at the end of them when it needs torque. So the carpal tunnel injuries in this plant have almost virtually disappeared. Because people don’t have that torqueing of their wrist all the time. The tool can start off slow, go real fast, and as it gets to torque, it will slow down and just pulse right to the end.

“The other thing with the DC tools is they’re smart. Let’s say I’m a crew cab and I have six secures on a crew cab—three on each door. The tool’s smart enough to count and know that I did six secures. But if I’m a regular cab, I’ve only got three. The tool’s smart enough to know, “Wait, this is a regular cab—I only have to do three.”

Sleuthing Out Problems

Though he manages an engineering department, Pijor doesn’t have an engineering degree. After graduating with a communications degree from Ohio State University, he landed a job as a production supervisor at the Kentucky plant.

“Ford offers you a lot of opportunities once you’re in the facility, and I was good at it,” he says. “I excelled at problem-solving and maybe reverse-engineered the engineering part of it. But a lot of it in my mind is common sense, and if you understand how things work and how to problem-solve.

“My whole job is not engineering thing from the ground up. It’s all about problem solving and figuring out what’s wrong with something. I’ve got 140 engineers I’ve got to convince to do a good job every day.

In 2015, the Dearborn plant was completely upgraded with a new layout and machinery to accommodate the new aluminum-bodied F-150. During the launch, Pijor’s team had a devil of a time calibrating two new features on the vehicle: the 360-degree camera and adaptive cruise control. “We struggled like crazy,” he says. “We were having failures. We had some clues about what was wrong, and we’d think we’d fix it and then we didn’t,” says Pijor.

The problems were only on day shift. “That says the day shift operator’s doing something different than the night shift operator,” says Pijor. But the plant’s third crew that worked split shifts were having problems on days but not on nights, so that ruled out a human issue.

“What the hell’s different on the day shift?” Pijor asked himself. “We went around and around. It took us three months to figure out.” Then one of the engineers looked up, and the clouds parted. “Come to find out, that skylight up there, on sunny days in Michigan, and there are very few, the sun could shine on the laser that set up the calibration, and it would make a failure,” says Pijor. The skylight was covered, and the problem solved.

Job Highlights

Pijor says one of the things he likes most about his job is that “at any given time I could walk out that door and it’s tangible—I could put my hands on an F-150. I mean, the Raptor? That is unbelievable.

“We build a lot of trucks. A lot of trucks. The cab that we’re building here is also built at Kentucky truck plant, Kansas City and Ohio assembly plant. We’re talking nearly a million cabs a year, and I am the lead launch manager. I have, I like to say that the decisions I make affect all these people in four assembly plants. I could put my hands on an F-150. I mean, the Raptor? That is unbelievable.

He also likes driving the early prototypes around Detroit. “You stop at a gas station, and everyone wants to talk to you about your truck. And whenever I see somebody in one of our trucks I go and talk to them.” His wife doesn’t always love these little conversation detours cutting into their plans for the day, “but I want to know what their feedback is. What don’t you like?”

During major model launches (the new F-150 launch took three years of planning) “my team will sit in rooms for hours discussing minutiae of what size package does the material have to come in,” he says. “ ‘How do we make it fit on the line? Is it returnable or cardboard?’ If it’s cardboard, we’re a zero waste landfill facility—‘How do you handle the cardboard? How do the trucks deliver, how are they unloaded, with what frequency are they unloaded? How does it get from the dock to the line? How is the material presented? What is the replenishment strategy? Is it automatic? Does the system tell the material to be replenished? Does the operator have to hit the button to call for more material? How is that? What kind of tool?’” So many questions—and he’s ready for more.