Ford Expedition, Lincoln Navigator drive assembly line, factory changes


Todd Hoevener, chief program engineer of the Ford Expedition, talks about growing up as a farm kid.
Phoebe Howard/Detroit Free Press

In an attempt to meet rapidly growing demand for the Ford Expedition that comfortably seats eight passengers, the carmaker announced Tuesday that it will overhaul the SUV’s production, speeding up assembly lines and adding workers.

“They needed to figure out how to increase production at a plant already operating at top speed,” said John Savona, Ford vice president, North American manufacturing. 

So Ford is moving 550 workers from the Louisville Assembly Plant now building the Ford Escape over to the nearby Kentucky Truck Plant in Louisville, Kentucky, to join 8,100 other UAW workers already building the Expedition, Lincoln Navigator and F-Series Super Duty trucks there.

Ford has its eye specifically on buyers who might consider its competitors’ full-size sport utilities, such as Chevy Tahoe, Chevy Suburban and GMC Yukon. Basically, Expedition is working to carve its way into a segment dominated by General Motors.

“We are the challenging brand,” said Matt VanDyke, Ford director of U.S. marketing. The company lacked enough vehicles to fulfill demand last year. “We saw availability increase at the end of last year and we saw the conquest rate increase from 40 to 48 percent. The first two months of the year, it increased about 50 percent.”

Ford is making its changes ahead of GM, which is about to refresh its large SUVs.

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Millennials currently make up 14 percent of Expedition buyers, Ford said.

This is the second time Ford has announced it would maximize the Kentucky operations, increasing production of the Expedition and Navigator another 20 percent on top of recent gains.

Ford production of the Expedition went from 49,883 to 75,826 vehicles in 2018. And the Lincoln Navigator went from 11,927 vehicles to 24,537 vehicles. 

Consumers have contacted the Detroit Free Press over the past year, saying the wait for their vehicles is unbearable. And then the same consumers, months later, report the wait has been worth it. Full-size SUV passion seems insatiable. 

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Ford is meeting this demand by using 3D printers to speed up the manufacturing process, so when a tiny tool piece breaks, it can be replaced immediately without a delay in assembly. As a result, the integrity of production is not compromised and the company is seeing thousands of dollars in savings, the company said. 

Joe Hinrichs, Ford president of the global operations, reached out to his manufacturing team of salaried and hourly workers in Kentucky to figure out how to improve production. Some jobs couldn’t be done in the needed time, so they added more workstations and split up tasks. Ford changed the use of its space, adding pits and platforms so more line operators working in the same area can complete tasks with varying height requirements as the products go down the assembly line.

“We had to get creative,” Savona said. 

Changes to the factory will happen in July.

Ford builds more vehicles in the U.S. than any other automaker and employs more American hourly factory workers than anyone else, Savona said. “We want to keep it that way.”

Ford highlighted key Expedition gains from 2017 to 2018: 

  • Retail sales are up 35 percent to 41,795 vehicles
  • The large segment share up 5.6 percent to 17.5 percent
  • The average transaction price grew by $11,700 to $62,700 

Car dealers say customers talk most about the generous leg room in the second and third rows, not to mention fuel economy enabled by the aluminum body, VanDyke said.

Meanwhile, Ford says it felt confident enough about inventory supplies to launch a “Better Big” ad campaign on television Monday with plans to unveil spots for movie theaters, billboards and social media this month.

America will hear that the Expedition can handle “big people in the third row, really big people.” This morsel presents a contrast to the new Tesla Model Y sport utility vehicle, which has garnered a lot of attention for its cozy third row seating in recent days.

“We’ve got a better kind of big,” VanDyke emphasized. 

Ford will target March Madness viewers following the NCAA basketball tournament, along with the Country Music Awards and other sports programming.

One funny TV spot shows the Expedition driving down the road with a voice-over that says, “Leave no man behind or child or other child or their new friend or your giant nephews and their giant dad. Or a horse. Or the horse’s brother for that matter.”

One Ford ad, created by the new Ford creative partners Wieden + Kennedy, says the Expedition “puts your recliner to shame; the second row feels like the first row without a steering wheel.” And a third row feels like it should be the second row.

Another spot says, “It’s the kind of big where you never have to ask, ‘Should I scootch up?’ “

In a push to meet demand, Ford is shifting workers from one plant to another.


Todd Hoevener, chief program engineer of the Ford Expedition, talks about the new gigantic console that responds to what focus groups have said for years: Women need and want purse space.
Phoebe Howard/Detroit Free Press

The whole expansion project is part of a $925-million investment announced in 2017. The redesigned work stations in the plant have been made possible by space savings created by a new way of assembling doors, which began in July 2018.

“We don’t have a lot more room to expand on the property,” Savona said. “We didn’t have space to do brick and mortar.”

Now that shelves are stocked, Ford wants to “stoke the demand,” VanDyke said. 

Ford is pivoting from Build Ford Tough and Built Ford Proud to Better Big.

The campaign will highlight towing capacity and driver-assist technology in addition to seating. 

No question, the appetite for large SUVs is real. In the U.S., shoppers purchased:

  • 332,843 in 2010
  • 445,474 in 2015
  • 514,435 in 2018

The profit margins in this segment contribute in a big way to profit margins of the car companies.The 2019 Ford Expedition starts at $52,913. The 2019 Lincoln Navigator starts at $72,305.

Contact Phoebe Wall Howard: 313-222-6512or Follow her on Twitter @phoebesaid

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