Ford could invest as much as $C1 billion later this decade to transform its Oakville, Ontario, assembly operation into a flexible manufacturing facility that could turn out several models off a single platform, Ford Canada president Alain Batty says.

Any investment to do that would require help from Canadian governments, Batty said, and the company’s operations in Oakville would have to compete with other Ford locations in the United States in order to win the project.

“When the time comes, we have to have a good business case,” Batty said.

His comments came in the wake of the new labour agreement that members of the Canadian Auto Workers union approved last weekend.

Part of the deal includes the potential development of what Ford calls “a world-class manufacturing operation” in Oakville, which would consist of a flexible plant that would manufacture a new generation of vehicles – with several models spawned by a single platform — as well as possibly a supplier park for parts makers serving the plant.

Ford has two assembly plants sitting side-by-side in Oakville, but one of them –the Ontario Truck Plant — will close in 2004. About 900 of 1,400 CAW members there will transfer to the neighbouring Oakville Assembly Plant, which is the only Ford facility that assembles the Windstar minivan.

Ford has begun an investment of $C600 million at the Windstar plant to prepare for the next generation of that vehicle, which will begin rolling off the assembly line in 2004. Ford will also add a luxury minivan called the Monterey, for its Mercury division.

Any investment to turn Oakville into a flexible manufacturing facility would come several years after later, but Ford has already laid out for the Canadian and Ontario provincial governments its vision of a flexible manufacturing operation in Oakville, Batty added.

Other governments in locations where Ford is building flexible plants —
Dearborn, Mich., and Chicago, for example — have provided assistance.

“By and large, the government agencies have seen the wisdom of this,” group vice-president of North American operations Jim Padilla said during a conference call with analysts.