Ford's (NYSE:F) all-new 2015 F-150 pickup is seen by many as the biggest risk that the company has taken in years.
Why? Because of the pickup's aluminum construction.
By making much of the new truck's body out of aluminum instead of steel, Ford is running the risk that skeptical truck-buyers -- who value ruggedness and longevity very highly -- will accept the new trucks as readily as they do Ford's current, proven steel-bodied F-150s.
Ford has done plenty of durability testing with their new trucks, and they're very confident that pickup buyers will find the new F-150 to be as rugged as the current trucks -- and that they'll be even more pleased when they see that the lighter weight will improve fuel economy and towing capacity, among other things.
But Ford is also running another risk: Aluminum vehicles are harder to manufacture than steel ones. In fact, no automaker has ever tried to make an aluminum-bodied vehicle in the kind of volumes that Ford will need with its new truck.
Given the troubles that Ford has had with some of its other new-product launches in the last couple of years, that raises a huge question: Will Ford be ready when production of the 2015 F-150 starts this fall?
A manufacturing expert with the best inside view
To find out, I spent some time this week talking to the man who knows better than anyone else: Ford's Joe Hinrichs.
Hinrichs is Ford's President of the Americas, running the company's North American and South American divisions. He's one of Ford's top leaders, and he's often mentioned as a possible future CEO.
But Hinrichs is also -- maybe first and foremost -- an auto-manufacturing expert. Hinrichs spent years running factories and related operations for both Ford and General Motors (NYSE:GM), and was previously in charge of all of Ford's global manufacturing.
Nobody is better-positioned to know (and explain) the challenges Ford is facing with the new aluminum-bodied F-150 than Hinrichs, in other words. And while he's very confident that Ford's new truck is on-track for a smooth rollout this fall, he explained that there are some big challenges involved.
Nobody has ever done anything like this before
As Hinrichs sees it, there are two key challenges involved in producing the new truck.
The first is simply production speed. As I said above, no automaker has ever tried to make aluminum-bodied vehicles at the rate at which Ford's assembly lines produce F-150s: 60 trucks an hour, 22 hours a day. (This is America's best-selling vehicle, after all.)
Here's why that's an issue: Unlike steel, aluminum vehicle-body panels are riveted and bonded -- glued with high-tech glue, essentially. Those processes require special machines and procedures. It's different from what Ford has always done. But it can't be any more time-consuming, or Ford's assembly lines will fall behind.
Ford worked with tool suppliers to create new types of riveting machines that could handle the speed and precision required on the F-150's production lines. (Ford builds the F-150 in two factories: One in Dearborn, Mich., the other in Kansas City, Mo.)
Hinrichs told me that Ford actually changed one joint in the current F-150 about a year ago to a riveted design, so that they could test the new equipment on the actual F-150 production lines. (It has worked just fine, he said.)
He said that Ford has spent "an enormous amount of time" developing new production processes for the 2015 F-150, and testing them, over and over. He's very confident that Ford's production lines will be ready to go when it's time to start production.
Can Ford's aluminum suppliers keep up with demand?
And that second issue? Making sure that Ford's suppliers can deliver enough aluminum.
Hinrichs didn't confirm this, but it's well known that Ford worked closely with aluminum giant Alcoa (NYSE:AA) on the special sturdy aluminum alloy that will be used in the F-150. Alcoa is believed to be a key supplier of metal for the new trucks, but it's probably not the only one.
What Hinrichs did tell me is that getting sufficient quantities of aluminum has been "another challenging part" of the race to get the new F-150 into production.
The concern isn't just about getting enough metal to get started, he explained. It's about ensuring that the supply will be steady over the model's entire lifetime. Ford's suppliers also need to make sure that the specific aluminum alloy that they supply is the one that meets Ford's strict requirements.
Those are risk points, and they're ones that investors should be aware of. But again, Hinrichs expressed confidence. He said that Ford's aluminum suppliers have been expanding their own production capacity and hiring and training more workers in order to be ready to go when it's time to start building the new truck.
The upshot: The boss thinks they'll be ready
Even if Ford was behind schedule on the F-150, I wouldn't expect Hinrichs to have told me so. But he sounded very confident about Ford's ability to launch the new truck successfully.
Hinrichs has been personally involved in the preparations to build the new F-150s. He told me that he went over to the Dearborn factory this past Wednesday to look at the latest pre-production 2015 F-150s, and he went through the issues with the manufacturing team and engineers himself, something that he has been doing regularly for months.
And what was his take? "They look great and everything is on plan," he said.
Will that plan work out? We'll find out this fall.