Ford Motor Company is investing up to $US325 million in two transmission plants to build an all-new, rear-wheel-drive six-speed automatic transmission.

This includes an investment of $170 million in the Livonia (Michigan) Transmission Plant and $155 million for Ford's Sharonville (Ohio) Transmission Plant, near Cincinnati. Since November 2002, the company has invested more than $1.3 billion in tooling and equipment at its North American powertrain plants.

"What we are trying to do with the new vehicles we introduce is to maximize our impact in improving fuel efficiency thereby reducing CO2 emissions as well," said a Ford vice-president, Jim Padilla. "These new transmissions provide an average of 4% to 8% improvement in fuel efficiency over a traditional four-speed automatic, so this is a trend with environmental impact worth noting.

"By 2008 more than 60% of Ford's transmissions will be new, including new six-speeds and continuously variable transmissions," Padilla added.

"Today less than one percent of all vehicles sold in North America have six-speed automatics, so this is a unique transmission," said Dave Szczupak, vice president of Ford's powertrain operations. "By 2010, 15 to 20% of vehicles sold in North America will have six-speeds, and by 2015 it will be about 50%. Twenty-five years ago, the average American was driving a car with a three-speed automatic."

Livonia will assemble the new transmission, and Sharonville will machine and assemble the transmission's gears, the heart of an automatic. Sharonville will produce up to seven million gears annually for the new transmission, and ship the assembled gears to Livonia for final assembly.

Production of the new transmission will begin at the Livonia plant by the middle of 2005, with gear production also beginning at Sharonville in 2005. This is the first all-new transmission awarded to the Livonia plant since 1984.

Sharonville started building a new transmission a year ago, the TorqShift five-speed automatic - for F-Series Super Duty trucks - and also builds a variety of four- and five-speed automatics.

To build the new 6R, the Livonia plant is receiving a new final assembly and advanced testing area, new case and valve-body machining lines and a new main control assembly line.

As part of the case and valve-body machining areas at Livonia and the gear machining line at Sharonville, Ford will install a series of "flexible" computer-numerically controlled (CNC) machines which will help it react quickly to changing production needs and cost less than the outgoing transfer-line system. The new machines can be retooled and reprogrammed internally, with little or no interruption in production. In many cases, this reprogramming can be accomplished over a weekend.

The new flexible manufacturing system replaces the complicated process of removing old-style dedicated milling or boring machines and installing new ones, which can interrupt production for months.