South Africa
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Building the Ford Ranger’s heart a task perfected over 100 years

Each station only has 120 minutes to complete their assigned task, something all of the participating media probably failed to achieve.

With its opening in November 1923, Ford’s vehicle production plant in Port Elizabeth, now Gqeberha, officially became a first not only for the Blue Oval outside of America, but also for South Africa.

100 years in South Africa

Less than a year later, January 1924 to be exact, what had been a disused wool plant was producing Model T’s at a rate of a 10 units per day using semi-knockdown kits imported from Canada where production had been taking place in five different factories.

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By 1964 though, after relocation from the wool plant to a factory in Harrower Road (1937) and then Neave Industrial Township in 1947, expansion of the latter and building of a parts warehouse two year before ultimately led to the opening of the Struandale Plant and focus solely on engine production.

Officially opened by then Ford CEO, Henry Ford II, in May of the former year, Struandale, after almost six decades, has produced no less than 11 different derivatives of engine ranging from the original Kent, Essex V6 and RoCam units, to the Panther, Puma and Lion turbodiesel mills powering the Ranger assembled at the Silverton Plant outside Pretoria.

Heart of Ranger

A facility that celebrated production of its fourth millionth engine in August this year, five years after the production of the third millionth, 856 employees stationed at 40 different points assemble the three derivative of engines in three shifts day in and day out.

This, however, excludes the 3.0-litre Lion V6 which, following Ford’s R600-million investment into Struandale two years ago for engine manufacturing of the Ranger and its joint venture twin, the new Volkswagen Amarok, required an additional 25 stations to be made on an assembly line rotated with the 2.2-litre and 3.2-litre Puma engines produced exclusively for non-vehicular propulsion.

In total, the investment, preceded months before by the record R15.8-billion injection into Silverton for Ranger and Amarok production, unlocked a capacity of 130 000 Lion V6’s being producible per year, while the combined tally for the single and bi-turbo 2.0-litre four-cylinder Panther engines increased to 250 000 units per year.

Here we go again

The first Ford facility in the world to produce four, five and six cylinder engines under one roof, Struandale’s direct employment of 5 500 across the various supply chain manufacturers received a few more when members of the media descended on it to get a first-hand experience of what it takes to assemble an engine in no less than 120 minutes per station.

Wary of what happened three years ago when a colleague accidently got his high visibility jacket stuck on one of the overhead cut-off switches, which caused a complete factory shutdown for 30 minutes as a result of the switch being activated and subsequently damaged, the go-ahead to “help-out” with assembly of the Lion V6 quickly unlocked a sense of dread for this writer.

Besides the obvious lack of processional known-how, and the fact that Struandale management had prepared its workforce weeks in advance for us being present, the anxiety remained as a result of a) my complete lack of any type of power tool b) being almost certain to exceed the 120 minute limit despite there being no competition and c) the likely frustration of the employee tasked with teaching us the intricacies of a job they could possibly do blindfolded.

Whereas my last visit three years ago involved topping the bi-turbo Panther with oil and testing its cold weather prowess in a specifically designed chamber, on the Lion line, matters were completely different.

For a start, there was the finicky but required scanning of various QR codes on certain parts of the engine as a means of tracking its progress in order to ensure quality throughout the build.

Once finished, the next step, in this instance, involved tightening and torquing a number of bolts which, at this station, keeps the V6’s oil pump in place.

A process that requires not only skill, but also familiarisation with the sequence, executing what my “teacher” Candice had been doing for years left me floundering on a number occasions, fortunately without bringing the plant to a halt.

The second and most daunting task came in the form of torquing the engine and replicating the V-bank of six cylinders going up and down by inserting a pneumatic torque tool into the block.

A process that really had me struggling as a result of it requiring even more steps than simply drilling down a few screws, I did, however, manage to complete four builds, more than likely well beyond the 120 minutes, but with a renewed amount of respect for Struandale’s employees tasked with repeating the process over-and-over.

If not already stringent enough, the roll-out of engines, depending on demand, has to run in perfect sync with Silverton so as to avoid production delays or hold-ups.

A task not helped by the country’s energy crisis, mitigated by the installation of solar panels that produce 13.5-megawatts of power – enough for 35% of the factory’s total power requirements – the plant has, however, had to dispense with damaged parts brought on by power surges that cause irreplicable damage as a result of full power not being delivered to the various tools.

Charitable side

Tools down and premises vacated after a gruelling few hours, we headed to the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB)’s facility located on the edges of the Friendly City near Cape Receive.

A non-profit origination that forms part of 29 environmental research, conservation and education initiatives supported by Ford through its Wildlife Foundation fund, SANCCOB’s main priority involves the recusing and rehabilitation of sea birds, most prominently the African penguin, whose numbers have been on a steady decline over the last decade due to amongst others, a lack of fish as a result of overfishing.

Once back to health, the penguins, as well as seagulls, gannets, oystercatchers and cormorant cared for by SANCCOB, are released back into wild, while those unable to return due to injury deemed too serious, remain in the care of facility.

“The ongoing support from the Ford Wildlife Foundation and the provision of the Ford Ranger makes a huge difference in the daily operations of SANCCOB, as well as our ability to respond quickly to rescue and rehabilitate sick, injured and oiled seabirds and African penguins,” SANCCOB Manager Carl Havemann said in a statement.

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