Ford Rouge Factory Tour in 3D

Start the video, then click on the 3D button in the menu bar to select 3D or 2D format. You can also select resolution up to 720p HD

Once upon a time in America you could actually watch people manufacture things. Factory tours were commonplace. When family members would visit Detroit, they’d schedule multiple tours of automotive assembly plants. If they weren’t that interested in cars they could tour the Vernor’s Ginger Ale bottling plant or Stroh’s brewery. If the kids could stand a three hour drive, some would go out to Battle Creek to see how they make corn flakes at Kellogg’s.

Now, Vernor’s is just a brand name owned by a large corporation and their bottling plant on Woodward has long since been torn down. The wrecking ball took down Stroh’s big red brick brewery decades ago.  As insurance company nannies worried about injuries and so many companies moved their manufacturing to offshore facilities, companies started eliminating factory tours. If you visit Hershey, Pennsylvania you can take a “chocolate factory tour” that’s really just another amusement ride at Hershey Park. It’s an ersatz factory.

Back in the day, though, there was one tour that everyone wanted to take, even if they had little interest in cars, and that was the tour through Ford Motor Company’s Rouge facility, at the time perhaps the largest industrial complex in the world.

Ford then still made their own steel, so the tour included a walk over the steel mill on the catwalk. Modern museums have Imax theaters and special effects, but they can’t compare to actually watching those huge ladles pour out molten metal, and the seeing large red-hot ingots being rolled to the appropriate thickness. When you toured the actually auto assembly plant you walked right next to the line, you saw the engines installed into chassis and then the most dramatic element of assembly, the body drop.

Ford made a big deal about the Rouge tour. They even moved the Ford Rotunda from the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair to Dearborn, where it served as a visitor’s center for those taking the Rouge tour. Over 18 million people visited the Rotunda, which together with the Rouge tour was the 5th most popular tourist destination in the United States in the 1950s, with more visitors than Yellowstone National Park, Mount Vernon, the Washington Monument, and the Statue of Liberty. Sadly, the Rotunda burned to the ground in late 1962, but the Rouge tour continued until 1980.

In time the Rouge facility deteriorated and in the late 1980s, as the auto industry modernized its plants, there was talk of shutting down the Rouge complex.  Much of what had formerly belonged to Ford at the Rouge site had been divested, including the steel mill. The UAW rallied a “save the Rouge” campaign and in the late 1990s FoMoCo decided to turn the Rouge complex into a showcase for environmentally sensitive manufacturing. As Ford’s 2003 centennial approached the decision was made to renew the factory tours as a joint venture of Ford Motor Co. and the *Henry Ford Museum.

A visitors center for the factory tour was constructed adjacent to the Dearborn Assembly plant and limited tours began as part of the centennial celebration. Full scale tours began in 2004. In 2010 approximately 90,000 people took the tour. That figure should go up since the Rouge Factory Tour has started a marketing campaign for 2011, including tv ads during local coverage of the NAIAS.

The tour starts when you board a bus in front of the Museum, which takes you on a short ride to the visitors’ center. It’s on that bus that you start to get an idea of the scope and scale of the Rouge complex. Soon you’re surrounded by nothing but industrial buildings wearing the blue oval logo. The Rouge complex is still Ford’s largest industrial facility and about 6,000 people work there.

The visitors’ center has guides printed in a variety of languages. About half the people taking the tour were from outside the United States. One Chinese couple asked for a guide in their native tongue. The purpose of the center is to house a couple of movie theaters, the tour gift shop, and the small “Legacy” collection of historically significant Ford cars (1964.5 Mustang, 1956 Thunderbird, 1949 Ford, Ford V8 and the 20 millionth Model A built). One movie is on the history of the Rouge complex, originally built under Edsel Ford’s direction to build Liberty ships during World War One. The second film is a multimedia presentation about the actual factory. Sparks fly and the ground shakes and you even get sprayed with a little water vapor when the film depicts testing in the water booth.

It’s impressive and emotionally stirring, but special effects can’t compete with 50 year old memories of the “real Rouge tour”.  After the history film and multimedia experience are over, you can go up the elevator to the center’s observation deck, where you can get an idea of just how big the Rouge complex is. You can also see a bit of greenwashing as Ford uses the observation deck to publicize the “living roof” and other environmentally sensitive features built into the renovated assembly plant.

Then it’s time for the actual factory tour. On the building’s second level there’s a pedestrian walkway into the assembly plant. Ford built a broad catwalk around the perimeter of the final assembly part of the plant, one of two plants where they builds the F-150 pickup truck.Though the engine drop and body drop are in a different part of the plant, not visible on the tour, there is still ample manufacturing activity that will catch your attention as the workers fit interior and trim components. There are docents to explain things if you have questions, and a few tv screens and interactive displays about some of the assembly processes.

Ford has plans to add an assembly plant to the Rouge that will be the state of the art in terms of flexible manufacturing, with the ability to produce as many as 9 different models of cars or trucks on the same assembly line. For the time being, though, Dearborn Truck is about as modern as a factory can get. All the heavy lifting is done with mechanized articulated arms, and the bodies are raised and lowered for optimum worker ergonomics.

In 1914, Henry Ford started paying workers $5/day. His factories were not very pleasant places to work and FoMoCo had a 93% turnover rate for new hires – not a good thing if your business model is based on productivity. Henry was all about productivity so he paid more to keep his workers on the job. It was decidedly not about paying his employees enough to be able to buy a Model T, though better pay at Ford led to better pay in general for industrial laborers and Ford may have benefited from that. Paying your employees to buy your products is not profitable – it’s really no different than moving money from one pocket to the other. Ford paid $5/day to keep people from quitting.

Those workers in 1914 wouldn’t believe what a modern assembly plant is like. A century ago the plants were noisy, dirty, monotonous, crowded and dangerous. Today’s Dearborn Truck is clean, well lit, relatively safe, and it’s quiet enough that you can carry on a conversation with a coworker. The work is ergonomically adapted to the workers’ needs, not the workers adapting to the work. The line moves at a relative snail’s pace compared to an era when Ford supervisors carried stop watches and practiced Taylorism. Speaking of productivity, a modern assembly plant is much more productive than one from the 1950s or 1960s. A typical assembly plant today employs about 2,500 people, about 1/4th the number who would have worked there a couple of generations ago.

Normally photography is not allowed during the factory tour, but the plant’s communications director arranged clearance for me. Apparently it’s not an issue about protecting proprietary information – it’s that the autoworkers don’t like people taking their pictures. I suppose it’s bad enough having thousands of people literally looking over your shoulder (the catwalk is a story above the shop floor), so I can understand the workers’ feelings. A few of the workers gave me hard looks, though it might have been my 3D rig that caught their attention – when you’re shooting with two cameras it’s kind of noticeable. I’m known as a bit of a cheerleader for the domestic car companies and I tend to be sympathetic to autoworkers, but I have a message for the guys who were staring me down: “if you don’t like your picture being taken when you’re on the job, when you stare the photographer down, try not to have your hands in your pockets, looking like you have no work to do.”

The 3D came out well. The plant is cavernous, there are conveyors carrying bodies and components above and below the level of the catwalk, and there’s always some kind of activity going on in the background. With all of the conveyors and other metal structures in the plant there are a lot of dimensional reference points. So it’s an ideal place to shoot 3D. The still photos give you a sense of the size of the place and I tried to get video of things in motion like conveyors and the “skillets” that the unfinished trucks ride on. Considering Ford’s policy on photography in the plant, these are likely the only 3D photos and video of the factory as of this date.

Please excuse the shaky camera on the videos. It was only the second or third time that I used our DIY steadicam rig and I’m still getting used to it. Also, I’m having some difficulty getting the edited video clips to upload to YouTube so for the time being I’m posting the full videos complete with hand-claps for syncing left and right videos.

If you’re coming to Detroit and have an afternoon to spare, I strongly urge you to take in the Rouge Factory Tour. With so few Americans involved in manufacturing it’s nice to be able to see some folks actually make things. If you’re reading this site you’re a car enthusiast so the fact that this particular factory makes pickup trucks is icing on the cake. Since you’ll already be at the museum, you should buy a ticket to see the museum as well. Of course the Henry Ford Museum is one of America’s great museums of history and American culture so it’s worth a visit no matter what. While the museum’s car collection is not as large or as comprehensive as some, every car in its collection is historically significant. Like the Indy 500 winning Lotus 38 or the Lincoln limousine President Kennedy rode in Dallas, there are vehicles that you are not likely to see anywhere else. While as expected there are plenty of Ford products, the curators really do a good job presenting automotive history besides the role of Ford Motor Co.

Scroll down below the photo gallery for more videos.

Click on the image gallery below to launch Flash player and view in your choice of 3D formats or 2D

Start the video, then click on the 3D button in the menu bar to select 3D or 2D format. You can also select resolution up to 720p HD

Rouge Factory Tour Visitor Center Observation Deck. The Rouge complex still contains an engine plant, a gas tank plant and a dedicated power plant.

Entering the assembly plant.

Interior trim installation.

Installing sun roofs with articulated arm

Joining truck beds to cabs, conveyor moves body to body drop.

Pickup bed assembly line, door conveyor

Conveyor with truck bodies

*A while back someone not as smart as they think they are decided that “The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village” was no longer a suitable name so they rebranded the entire institution as “The Henry Ford”, something only a branding consultant who didn’t know about Henry Ford Hospital, Henry Ford High School, Henry Ford Community College and the many other institutions in the region named after Henry Ford or his grandson Henry Ford II, could do. Even the people who work for the institution think it’s a silly name. My guess is that the high level curators and administrators of the Henry Ford Museum travel in social and business circles where everyone knows what “The Guggenheim” is and are more likely to call that other art museum in NYC “MOMA” than the Museum of Modern Art. I suppose that in that milieu “The Henry Ford” makes sense but regular folks around Detroit will still call it the Henry Ford Museum. The staff of Cars In Depth absolutely refuses to go along with such a stupid rebranding, so this explanatory paragraph may be the only time we will use the name “The Henry Ford”. If I say “The Henry Ford”, you will probably ask, “the Henry Ford what?”. If I say the Henry Ford Museum, you know it’s that cool place in Dearborn with all the cars, trains and vintage washing machines.

Disclaimer: The very helpful and friendly people in the media and film department of THF arranged for me to get complimentary access to the Rouge Factory Tour and the Henry Ford Museum. Ford Motor Company graciously permitted me to film inside the factory.

This entry was posted in 3D Imagery, 3D Video, Automotive History, Ford, Museums, Roadside Attractions and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

52 Responses to Ford Rouge Factory Tour in 3D

  1. Marty Densch says:

    A couple of friends and I took in the Rouge tour a few years back and it is everything Ronnie says. I was particularly impressed with all of the green technologies that have been brought to bear and the efforts that have been made to clean up what must have been an environmental nightmare. Our guide pointed out the company had even established new wetlands within the complex and that migratory birds had already started nesting there.

    The Detroit area has enough museums to keep an auto enthusiast busy for a long time but you need to start with The Henry Ford and when you go be sure to add the Rouge tour to your ticket.

  2. Ronnie Schreiber says:

    Marty, I’m surprised that nobody offers organized tours of the automotive history sites – at least during the NAIAS or in August around the Woodward Dream Cruise when there are car guys visiting Detroit.

    For anyone interested in automotive history around Detroit, this site is a good place to start:

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