TRAVERSE CITY, Michigan -- Ford is bringing sexy back to manufacturing.
Like most automakers, Ford is undergoing a transformation.
But one of the most vital shifts for Ford is making its plants more interesting places to work, said Michael Mikula, who is tasked with that mission as the automaker's chief engineer of advanced manufacturing.
"There's an unfortunate paradigm that going into the plants is like a death march, and once you go in you never come out," Mikula said Tuesday during a panel on factories at the 2019 CAR Management Briefing Seminars.
"One of the things we're trying to do is teach people that the environment of manufacturing is very different now," he said. "It can be a fun, exciting, sexy place to work."
That involves using data and connected systems to help build vehicles faster and more efficiently.
That includes a number of innovations at Ford plants throughout the world, such as drone inspections at sites in Europe; the use of collaborative robots to help workers with difficult, repetitive tasks; and wearing exoskeleton devices to help employees avoid injury.
The effort takes place as Ford tries to move into new product areas. The automaker is entering into mobility services such as shuttles, electric scooters and bicycles to supplement its business of building and selling new vehicles.
Jim Hackett, who became Ford's CEO in 2017, has laid out a vision of a connected city in which vehicles talk with infrastructure and other connected devices. Hackett calls it developing smart vehicles for a smart world.
"None of that says anything about manufacturing," Mikula said. "At first those of us in manufacturing were a little bit offended by it, but we've come to really rally around what role manufacturing plays in creating a trusted company. We've really learned to embrace this."
Late last year, the automaker opened a $45 million advanced manufacturing center in the Detroit area featuring 3D printing, augmented and virtual reality, robotics and other processes.
"Additive manufacturing is a huge priority," Mikula said. "For the right parts, it's a legitimate alternative today."
Ford is cranking out two 3D-printed brake parts for its upcoming Mustang Shelby GT500. One undisclosed use of that technology could save the automaker more than $2 million.
"Our goal is to create the factory of tomorrow, but bring it today," Mikula said. "The business needs it, the market requires it and consumers will benefit from it."