Houston plant powers Ford’s push to hybrids (photos)

HOUSTON — Amid an expanse of warehouses and industrial parks churning out machinery for the oil industry lies a plant that Ford is using to help car owners burn less fuel.

There are assembly lines and robots, mechanical arms and reels of copper wire, inspectors and machine operators.

This is where hybrids begin.

As Ford ramps up a campaign to take electric and hybrid car customers from Toyota, it is relying on a Toshiba plant in Houston to produce the motors and generators for the vehicles.

The Japanese electronics maker has run a series of plants at its 55-acre facility in northwest Houston for 41 years, including operations that build large electric motors used by the oil industry.

The devices Ford makes at the plant are the key pieces that go into every one of the automaker’s hybrid and electric cars, which the company is counting on to win new customers.

“We build them here and then we ship them to Detroit,” said Matthew Bates, plant manager for Toshiba’s hybrid electric vehicle unit in Houston, as he walked down a line of zipping robots and busy plant workers.

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Ford has in the last year expanded from just two hybrid or electric vehicle models to six. In doing so, the automaker has more than doubled its share of the U.S. electric and hybrid market, from 7 percent a year ago to 15 percent so far this year, or more than 67,000 cars, according to data from Edmunds.com.

Toyota, led by the Prius hybrid, is the juggernaut in the category, with 62 percent of the market so far in 2013.

The category of “advanced drive vehicles,” which consists of hybrid and electric cars, is still a small part of the overall U.S. auto market, making up just 3.7 percent of the nearly 12 million cars sold so far this year, according to the data.

Still, a jump from virtually no cars sold 10 years ago, to more than 435,000 so far this year, has drawn a lot of attention from automakers, said Jeremy Acevedo, an analyst for Edmunds.com.

“Nobody really wants to get left behind,” he said.

Ford’s sales growth has been impressive, helping to chip Toyota’s share down from 69 percent of the market a year ago, Acevedo said.

“It’s paid dividends,” Acevedo said. “Now they are the second-largest seller of advanced drive vehicles in the nation.”

Ford’s addition of new models include the C-Max hybrid and plug-in versions, and a new, plug-in version of its Fusion hybrid, called the Fusion Energi. Ford also offers an electric version of its Focus and the Lincoln MKZ hybrid, with each vehicle bolstering the draw of the Ford lineup, said C.J. O’Donnell, Ford’ group electrification marketing manager.

“This is critical because this is how we’re going to win a lot of new customers to our business and that’s exactly what these new products are doing,” O’Donnell said.

At the Houston plant, workers and robots work in tandem on assembly lines. Many of the machines that help build the motors and generators are behind plexiglass.

The process begins with machines weaving copper wire into circular steel housings. Then workers help robots tie in wires.

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Later, a robotic arm sorts components of rotors, placing them into testing devices, then leaving them for employees to inspect physically.

“It’s futuristic, I guess you could say,” said Chris Ferraro, who was taking parts from one robot and handing them to others while operating a large oven on the assembly line recently. “Like, this is the future of building products. I think everybody in here likes to be a part of that.”

Together, the components of the motors and generators create magnetic fields that spin the rotors, allowing them to turn at over 15,000 revolutions per minute, five times the typical speed of industrial electric motors, Bates said.

Ford initially imported the motors from Japan, but moved the operation to Toshiba’s Houston plant in 2011.

Forty Houston workers went to Japan to learn how to build the engines, and operate alongside equipment with alarms that sounded like classical music instead of blaring buzzers.

“We had people that had never been on an airplane before, we had people who had never been out of Texas before and we packed them up and flew them to Japan for four months,” Bates said.

The 45,000-square foot Houston plant cost $40 million, employs 125 workers and ships out just over 100,000 units a year, Bates said.

If Ford has its way, the plant will be getting a lot busier.

With fuel economy the top concern among car buyers, Ford is hoping its increased offering of models will become the go-to option for consumers, O’Donnell said.

“These vehicles meet an increasing consumer desire for more fuel efficient cars,” he said. “If we don’t deliver against that requirement, someone else will.”