In 1917, Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge plant was an icon of 20th century manufacturing. A modern marvel, the full-scale vertically integrated production system, which functioned like a single complex machine, was later copied by other manufacturers.
Today, revitalization plans for the Ford Rouge Center are no less ambitious with the goal of becoming an icon of sustainable manufacturing for the 21st century. In other words, an environmentally-responsible facility that produces quality vehicles at lower costs. And it all starts at the redesigned Dearborn Truck Plant in Dearborn, Mich., home to the 2004 F-150 as well as the world’s largest living roof, a porous pavement parking lot, natural wetlands, and a process for turning paint fumes into power, to name some of the environmental initiatives in action.
"It’s a living laboratory," says Andy Acho, Ford Motor Company’s Worldwide Director of Environmental Outreach & Strategy, who arranged our sneak peek of the facility, which opens to the public in May 2004. "As we learn more, we’ll find places to apply these technical and environmental initiatives."
On tour at the plant, also innovative for state-of-the-art lean and flexible manufacturing, you learn plenty about the 1,100-acre Ford Rouge Center in glorious detail. You begin at the Rouge Visitor Center, which recently earned Gold certification by the U.S. Green Building Council. First, a three-screen film tells the history of the Rouge followed by a 360-degree multisensory movie taking you into the 21st century. Detailing the production of a new F-150 with special effects – sound, heat, vibration and mist – it puts you "there" in the production process. At the Observation Deck, a panoramic view of the 10.4-acre living roof reveals the future of automotive manufacturing. Finally, you see the production process firsthand on a self-guided 1/3-mile tour of the final assembly line along an elevated walkway.
10.4 acre living roof
Of all the initiatives, the 10.4-acre living roof, the world’s largest, seems to be generating the most interest. It is covered with sedum, a drought-resistant perennial ground cover that flowers in the summer, attracting butterflies. It looks like a large lawn – the size of five football fields – inviting enough to conjure images of picnicking, although that, we are told, will not be happening.
Rather, the roof’s primary function is to catch and clean rainfall as part of a natural storm water management system, which maintains water quality in nearby lakes and steams. The living roof works with the porous pavement, underground storage basins, natural treatment wetlands and vegetated swales to reduce the amount of storm water flowing into the Rouge River. The porous pavement allows rainwater to trickle down through gravel and into stone storage basins to filter out particles. So instead of having a chemical-based storm water treatment plant, this system mimics nature.
Sedum also traps airborne dust and dirt, absorbs carbon dioxide and creates oxygen, all of which help improve air quality while providing a habitat for birds, insects and butterflies. The living roof will also save money: It is expected to last at least twice as long as a traditional roof and because sedum insulates the building, it costs less to heat and cool the plant. You also learn that Henry Ford was big on natural light, hence there are 10 giant window boxes, plus 36 smaller skylights atop the plant, further cutting electric bills.
The redesigned Ford Rouge Assembly Plant, just outside of Detroit, opened in June, 2004.
Fumes-to-Fuel and Phytoremediation
Also within the Rouge Center, Ford is testing a system that generates electricity from paint fumes. The Fumes-to-Fuel System converts the volatile organic compounds found in paint fumes into hydrogen fuel for fuel cells. The electricity produced by the fuel cells will then be sent to the plant’s energy grid.
Phytoremediation is another experiment that naturally removes contaminants (left over from decades of steel manufacturing) from the soil. The process uses plants, and the microbes attached to their roots, to break down contaminants into harmless organic compounds, which are absorbed into the roots. This method costs less than excavating and landfilling, is solar driven and adds beauty to the landscape while restoring wildlife habitats.
Even during the last stage of the tour, inside the one-million square-foot final assembly plant, where videos and live shots explain how the vehicle is assembled, you discover still more environmental initiatives. One plaque, for example, explains that the company minimizes waste by packaging vehicle parts in reusable plastic containers.
Indeed, the signs are all around. As you leave, while it’s clear you’re at a large manufacturing complex, you also pass a crabapple orchard (which provides food for birds, bees and other pollinators), wetlands, and plenty of green spaces. As Acho puts it, "The Rouge Center is an outstanding example of Ford Motor Company’s dedication to providing ingenious environmental solutions that will position us as a leader in the automotive industry in the 21st century. And it continues our quest for proactive environmental actions that help preserve the environment for future generations."