US vehicle-makers are challenged to produce more vehicles with fewer manufacturing plants
The good news is there is huge demand and the bad news is there is huge demand. This was a common refrain throughout the two-day event held in Detroit. The dramatic and welcome return to health of the US automotive industry has been well documented but the good news has perhaps hidden the enormous challenges now facing vehicle manufacturers and their suppliers. Scott Garberding, senior vice-president Manufacturing at Chrysler (now taking up a new appointment at Fiat) highlighted how increased production capacity has to be carefully balanced against the risk of a return to over production.
With the closure of over 20 production plants in the US since the economic crash, Garberding explained the need to cost-effectively optimise the remaining facilities and motivate the workforce. Solutions ranged from the sublimely simple to the complete upgrading of production processes and equipment. In the first instance Chrysler plants had been refreshed with the thorough re-organisation of the workspaces and equipment. Along with upgraded lighting this (relatively) simple and effective step provided the workforce with a much improved working environment, and was part of a much wider change to the company’s culture and business structure.
Garberding said that investment in people and building workforce skills would be a central element in meeting the demand for greater capacity. The importance of this can’t be understated as Chrysler has introduced a three-crew, two-shift work pattern. Along with Chrysler’s implementation of its World Class Manufacturing system, this change has seen a great improvement in productivity, he claimed. The changeover of each 10-hour shift is scheduled to allow the workers to have quality time for social and family activities and plant safety has also greatly been improved.
Furthermore plants have seen considerable investment in upgrading equipment and processes. Garberding cited examples of the $1.8 million investment at the Kokomo transmission plant in Indiana where standardising of the CNC cells had allowed for rapid reconfiguring of the line, and also the development of rapid transfer between engine types at the Dundee engine plant, creating a highly flexible production line. Additional shifts in the paintshops allowed for rotated staff breaks to avoid stopping the line, while the assembly line processes were focused on reducing the number of operations each worker had to do per job. Garberding said the extensive use of kitting had further improved efficiencies. He concluded that the high level of capacity utilisation was a good indicator of the company’s health.
Richard Morris explains how flexibility in production will be as important as efficiency in achieving the high levels of utilisation
In contrast to the longer established facilities in Michigan, BMW’s Spartanburg plant in South Carolina (built in 1992) has seen continuous expansion of the site. But as Richard Morris, Assembly vice-president for BMW manufacturing in the US, explained, the pressure to increase capacity, efficiency and reduce costs was just as intense.
Having had over $5 billion invested in the plant since its inauguration the factory has developed highly ergonomic production processes that are facilitated by equipment such as rotating cradles and adjustable skids, according to Morris. Additionally, Morris pointed out that flexibility in production would be as important as efficiency in achieving the levels of capacity utilisation needed to meet current (and future) demand. Individual control of skids and cradles on the line was offered as an example of a flex production solution at Spartanburg. Concurring with earlier comments, Morris explained that considerable resources were applied to developing workforce skills that would not only benefit the Spartanburg plant’s efficiency, but also the wider local economy.
Continuing the theme of capacity vs. demand, Joe Berish from the Oliver Wyman Automotive Practice (The Harbour Report), stated that in order to meet demand the OEMs would have to meet four significant challenges:
- Capacity utilisation
- Increased vehicle complexity
- New model frequency
Managing complexity while maintaining production volume will become increasingly challenging, according to Berish. He cited the example of German OEMs tripling their model offering with the vehicles themselves becoming increasingly complex. Taking the case of powertrain systems Berish noted that added complexity here has resulted in more operations required in assembly, but that this has so far been offset by improvement in the process. Manufacturers will also have to improve management of new model launches as they become more frequent. Berish suggested that the average model range showroom age would reduce by 35% by 2015. He added that improving plant utilisation and changes to traditional shift parts would also exert greater pressure on the component and materials supply chain.
This was another emerging theme at the conference. With the component and materials suppliers themselves recovering their production capacity and given the added challenges presented by the global reach of the supply chain, high demand from their OEM customers is stretching their current levels of capacity. And this is an important issue; without the availability, quantity and quality of components high volume vehicle production isn’t possible. In the past OEM capacity planning had been ‘ambitious’ explained William Storves, manager, Supply Chain Management and Plant Materials Management, Ford. This had contributed to over production. He explained how Ford is working closely with its supply partners to identify key trends and synergies. Storves emphasised the need for accurate capacity reporting, robust planning and due diligence throughout all value streams and sub-tiers. Asked how Ford had dealt with supply disruption due to recent natural disasters Storves replied that Ford had established very effective ‘crisis teams’ and again highlighted the importance of accurate capacity reporting and robust planning.
On the supplier side John Erwin vice-president of Purchasing and Environmental Health and Safety, at SRG Global, also highlighted the need for clear communication and planning and described how the company had developed a global system to ensure consistency and quality from its materials suppliers. This encompasses a standardised package of process, components, materials and tooling. Asked if SRG Global was affected by global market fluctuations Erwin replied that the company managed these effectively and that key to this was a deep understanding of their supply network.
Tom Fitzgibbons, instructor, Toyota Endowment at the University of Kentucky discussed a process whereby production managers create a foundation of standardisation in their processes that allows problems to be more easily identified. To do this Fitzgibbons advocated the need to learn the ‘how and why’ of components, to closely observe the operations of the workers and encourage feedback communication. He asserted that this would help create a framework for flexibility and develop a workforce with a strong problem-solving attitude.
In the concluding session of the conference Mike Jackson, director, North America, Vehicle Production Forecasting and Analysis, for IHS Automotive, illustrated the scale of the production challenge facing vehicle makers; by 2018 the global demand (for light vehicles) will pass 100 million units. With average current US manufacturing utilisation at around 90%, he underlined the connection between demand and the development of production technology. Jackson added that this upward trend would create increasing competition between OEMs and could lead to some becoming financially exposed in the future.
The demand for more production capacity has seen increasing development in Mexico, fast establishing itself as a high-tech manufacturing centre. The rapid growth of engineering company Superlaser & Fixtures is a prime example of this. The company’s chief executive, Gerardo Oaxaca, said that the country’s growth in this sector would continue with the support of the OEMs and the development of a skilled workforce. Ramesh Parameswaran, global strategy manager, Stamping Business Unit, Ford, echoed the call for the training and development of more young engineers, which he said will be key to the future of the industry and its ability to meet market demands.
The conference is part of the worldwide AMS series, which in 2013 continues with:
Kush Shah, Global Electrification Quality, Global Vehicle Engineering Quality, General Motors, spoke in his capacity as a member of the America Society for Quality (ASQ). He presented an ASQ Discoveries Report from 19191 companies in 22 countries. This report highlighted how quality practices differ between manufacturing and service companies; Shah spoke on how these practices should follow the same methods in all areas of business.
Shah showed a chart of ASQ’s standardised Measures of Quality, it use and standardisation protocols; using defects per million pieces produced, or in the case of service operations, tasks performed.
He spoke on training in the automotive industry, particularly on quality-related training the areas of: Six Sigma, lean, auditing, obtaining ISO certification and quality management. Shah pointed out that large corporations are not always the best at training for quality: of the various segments, OEMs in the $100 million to $999 million turnover range spend the greatest amounts on training in quality management.
Scott Bolt, chief engineer (MAHLE Test Systems), MAHLE Powertrain, gave an overview of vehicle testing processes. These ranged from electrical control unit (ECU) software installations through battery install, brake and fuel fill. He talked of how these operations can be significant bottle-necks on the production line, taking up considerable lengths of the line, up to three vehicle spaces that cannot be used for assembly work due to the electrically sensitive nature of the processes. He mentioned how three, four or five dedicated programmers would be employed at the stations, a further drain on resources. Bolt also related the problem of using the vehicle’s battery power to run electrical test and software installation tasks; how this caused flat batteries that remained uncharged until the vehicle reached the dealer where they were then rejected as faulty, leading to warranty claims against the OEM and ultimately, the battery manufacturer.
One solution to these challenges, Bolt said, is the use of rail mount or rolling cart installations that can give greater flexibility and carry their own power supply and use the standard J1962 connector for all modules on the vehicle. He listed the drawbacks of the rail tester as cost and bulk and spoke of the new portable testers, that can be simply hung on the steering wheel, will run a full production shift on one charge, ‘top themselves up’ from the vehicle if necessary and are aware of their location.
Ed Nabrotzky, executive vice-president, Sales and Product Development, OMNI-ID, discussed the various types of on-line identification, from e-paper through micro-radio and trigger (including passive RFID. IrDA, push button and mag switch). A major focus of his presentation was on enabling automated picking signals, ending the need for operators to judge which component they needed to pick, by being guided by a system of inventory management that signals the next item to pick, in the correct sequence.
Nabrotzky showed the latest types of visual tags, including those that will change colour according to pre-set conditions such as the age of the item; turning to red if the item is past its usable date, for example. He presented a Quality management System (QMS) application of instruction ‘traveller’ devices that allow operators to confirm actions, signal changes and retain records by communicating with central processing units within the plant. This ‘history acquisition’ feature allows centralised records of cycle times, dwell times, operations and suppliers’ actions to be recorded and analysed.
Dan McKiernan, president of eFlex Systems, asked Ed Nabrotzky about using Wi-Fi to connect with tags. Nabrotzky explained that while Wi-Fi would work well in a ‘stray signal-free’ environment, it was not suitable in a typical plant. The tags communicated with base stations etc., on a 4.3Mhz signal system that gave a 35-40ft coverage area that was adequate for in-plant communication.
For OEMs, sourcing tooling and dies for press shops on a global scale presents a number of challenges, according to Ramesh Parameswaran, global strategy manager, Stamping Business Unit, Ford. There has been much restructuring of pressing operations and tooling companies in mature markets. This has seen outsourcing of pressing operations and Parameswaran cited the example of some Japanese companies subcontracting the work to more cost-effective Korean operations. He said that markets such as China are now producing pressed parts with much improved outer surface quality, although there is some constraint in that rapid die change over times for large part jobs is still a challenge for some of the pressing companies. Parameswaran stated that in North America this sector has restructured and stabilised and while automotive manufacturing continues to grow in Mexico there are currently no major die suppliers in that market. He added that while South America does have die suppliers there are issues with the cost structures.
As Ford produces its global platform vehicles the company has established core stamping engineering centres in five locations and has developed working partnerships with more than 50 external tooling suppliers. Parameswaran explained that it has been vital to invest in developing Ford’s die suppliers to maintain consistency and quality in the delivery and performance of tooling and associated materials.
Servo press technology is the focus of development for AIDA according to Klaus Rothenhagen, vice-president, International Sales. He described how the company has had to develop its own electric motors specifically for the heavy press machinery as the motors generally available were not suitable for handling such high loads. Rothenhagen said that with the growing use of servo press technology a number of large electrical drive and control companies were now developing motors and control systems for this application. Other developments included energy recovery and management systems, he added.
Frank Grunow CEO at Profil discussed the growing need for OEMs to use alternative joining methods to welding as the variety of materials used in vehicle manufacturing increases. Grunow described the options now available in studs and rivets and explained fixing methods and applications.
As GM’s manufacturing chief for Body Manufacturing Engineering Product Interface, Michael Regiec is well placed to understand the challenges facing both the vehicle design and manufacturing divisions. Tasked with ensuring it is possible to cost-effectively manufacture the presented designs, Regiec discussed the development of lightweight vehicles and the manufacturing processes involved. He outlined the basics of the four-step approval system to evaluate design manufacturing viability. These are: right size, right topography, right materials, right design detail. Focusing on the choice of materials Regiec offered the Cadillac ATS an example where multiple materials had been used to achieve a strong, lightweight body cost-effectively.
The challenge when building a vehicle with a wide range of materials is integrating multiple joining methods (up to six in some cases) into a production line, he explained. For some applications cast (aluminium) sections are pre-joined to structural parts to lessen the impact on line speed. Regiec described the use of a development production cell to evaluate process options and manufacturing validation using simulation and high-fidelity prototyping. The 2014 Corvette Stingray will be the OEM’s largest carbon fibre programme, he added. Questioned regarding the difficulty of introducing this type of lightweight vehicle manufacturing on to a mixed model line, Regiec acknowledged that the multi-material approach would present some challenges in the short term.
Laser cutting and welding for body panels and components is now an established technology but is still seeing rapid developments, said Michael Fritz, global key account manager – Hotforming at Trumpf. He went on to explain one of the methods used to evaluate developments in cutting speeds. This involves repeatedly cutting identical components on a continuous basis and recording the performance data. Fritz said that this technology could deliver solutions for the challenges in lightweight vehicle production. He also discussed developing laser welding technology in a below atmospheric pressure environment and the benefits this offers in regard to weld quality.
ABB’s global manager for Body-in-White Systems, Bernard Negre, described the company’s latest developments in robotising bodyshop operations to increase flexibility. With up to three platforms and six models being built on a single line, the company has developed a number of solutions, according to Negre. These include a flexible transfer system, a multi-platform skid and a new gate framer.
Smart engineering was the theme of Prabha Shankar’s, presentation. The general manager Engineering at 3DCAD discussed how simulation could deliver improvements to bodyshop line engineering. He explained the system of smart engineering, encompassing process, design and simulation. Shankar also described the capability to scan existing tools and generate a 3D design to re-engineer the equipment.
David Phillips, director of Sales Engineering, The Americas and APAC, Zebra Technologies spoke of giving a ‘digital voice’ to objects, parts etc., in the value chain: where an object has been, what is its status in completion and age terms. He put the case for ‘auto-id’ in automotive manufacturing, talking about how it has evolved, from location data to ‘analytics to motion’ – motion information combined with location status. In a section of the presentation on ‘Enhanced visibility’, Phillips showed features such as rack availability monitoring and inventory count, intended to help reduce downtime during production changeovers, commenting that in today’s greater model and segment array, it is as important to have inventory rapidly changed over as it is to have quick tool changing systems.
He talked of how auto-id could help eliminate such challenges as daily ‘empty rack counts’, human intervention in monitoring rack status.
A topical element was raised when Phillips spoke of how Zebra had placed id tags on Detroit Lions football players for their game in the evening. These tags would be used to track player movement on the field throughout the game.
Todd Montpas, Automotive and Tire Market Development Manager, Rockwell Automation spoke of the Global Connected Enterprise, made up of IT and controls convergence. He quoted a figure of $1 trillion resource productivity investment being required in the auto industry by 2020, when demand will be further driven by the 70 million people joining middle classes worldwide and becoming automobile customers.
Montpas talked of how workforce productivity can be considerably increased by “manufacturing velocity’ improvements and of building the infrastructure for this through the company’s AutoSuite software.
He showed a case study of the paintshop at Toyota in Kentucky and the application of Rockwell’s FactoryTalk, which integrates EPA data, oven temperature monitoring and other metrics to give accurate root cause fault prevention.
Brian Windsor, National Product Manager for 2-D and 3-D Smart Cameras, SICK US, showed a presentation on advances in 3D vision for bin picking, highlighting key components such as flexible grippers, motion planning and collision avoidance, and sensors and software to enable robots to make discrete decisions on which item to pick from mixed objects in a bin. He pointed out that complex shapes with low contrast and varieties in surface reflectivity mean that 2D light-source driven systems can ‘fall down’.
Windsor then demonstrated how 3D systems work, through laser triangulation: a laser line projected onto the object to generate a a 3D image by taking many ‘slices’ all along the object and processing these into a 3D image. A further advance, he said, was that the laser can be mounted directly to the robot head, alongside the gripper, saving space and cost. Phillips also talked of the ability of the system to use CAD-based data to ‘train’ the picking robot.
Wayne Schwanky, controls engineering supervisor at Ford Powertrain, asked the panel about the use of GPS for in-plant tracking.
David Phillips of Zebra Technologies answered that while GPS was valuable in larger scale logistics operations, something more accurate was needed for in-plant, and this was where Auto-ID came into its own, being able to track down any part, or indeed piece of tooling, as long as it had an Auto-ID tag.
A major green initiative at Volkswagen Chattanooga was the decision to install a 33-acre solar park, with 33,600 panels that provide 9.6 megawatts of DC power, which is then inverted to 7.6 megawatts AC. Unlike many companies that install solar facilities in order to sell electricity back to the power companies, Volkswagen consumes 100% of the energy generated by the polycrystalline solar modules; the power meets 12.5% of the plant’s energy requirements at full production and 100% when the plant is idling.
Forrest showed a video of other intelligent energy-saving measures at the facility, including intelligent light switching that uses motion detectors to switch off office lighting when no people are detected, extensive rainwater collection and extensive recycling of waste from the plant and the offices. He also mentioned the green measures being undertaken at Volkswagen plants globally, including harvesting energy by wind power, and biogas generated by fermenting food waste from canteens.
David Skelton, vice-president, Development & Manufacturing, Phoenix Contact gave the world premiere of the company’s ‘Green Car Body Alliance’ study, researched by Phoenix Contact in conjunction with the Fraunhofer Institute and other industry partners. This study used a production line at Volkswagen’s Wolfsburg plant as a ‘testbed’; Phoenix and its partners installed a full energy measurement ‘architecture’ without disturbing the existing plant in any way.
This allowed the partners to track and measure every source of energy consumption and make recommendations as to how to reduce power consumption. Skelton went on to outline various intelligent energy-saving methods, including installing and programming controllers (PLCs and other controllers) switch to ‘energy-optimal’ states, idling on lower power during production breaks etc., but not, as he commented, switching off completely.
In the search for improved performance no component part of the vehicle is overlooked, as highlighted by the presentation from Chet Roslanowick, vice-president, Business Development, GKN Driveline Americas. He described an improved design from GKN, for outboard sideshaft CV joints. This new countertrack technology puts the bearings in balance to reduce friction and wear. Roslanowick also discussed developments for disconnect systems to reduce drag (and improve fuel economy) on AWD transmissions that are now proving popular in the market. He said that the company was working on hybrid/EV architectures utilising axial flux motors, and that GKN tests its systems as part of the complete drivetrain assembly before dispatch to the OEM.
Powertrain production is also subject to the need for flexibility and this would be reflected in future developments in machine tools, according to Douglas Watts, chief technical officer, MAG Automotive. He explained that process integration would be key, with a need for multi-tasking machining centres that would provide scalability of production. Watts discussed the company’s programme to re-cycle machine tools. These could be refurbished and reused at less cost than new equipment, and this would also avoid scrapping usable equipment. MAG has also developed dry machining processes, which Watts said were more environmentally friendly and energy efficient than using cutting fluids.
Professor Kozo Saito, director of the Institute of Research for Technology Development (IR4TD) at the Toyota Endowment at the University of Kentucky opened the Paintshop session with a presentation on the application of the Toyota Production System (TPS) to automotive painting technology. He talked of the small incremental improvement process afforded by using the Kaizen philosophy and contrasted this with the ‘top down’ system where he noted: “the system falls back to the start every time new administrators make new policy”.
The subject of production planning and capacity utilisation was much discussed at the conference and Saito showed one OEM’s solution to variances between planned and actual demand and production in an examination of the importance and influence of Kaizen on the management of buffer stock (between paint and assembly shops), at the NUMMI plant in California. He argued that extending the buffer stock or increasing staff simply disguised problems of inefficiency at the OEM and at the suppliers and spoke of looking beneath the surface of a problem to find the root cause, through the Monokuzuri system.
Looking at paintshop specifics, Saito’s colleague assistant professor Nelson K. Akafuah looked closely at the material science of paint products and thermal fluid science and engineering and how these elements had implications for coating quality and environmental management. Akafuah went into some detail on application of both wet and powder paint application with the focus on applicator (atomiser) design, particle/droplet dynamics, deposition, and film build consistency. He also looked at paint curing and oven energy efficiency, powder paint application and inspection of coated surfaces. Akafuah showed an exciting development in infra-red (IR) Surface Inspection Systems and detailed how this could be used for curing and coat coverage monitoring with great accuracy when compared to the usual photospectrometer equipment.
Akafuah also showed slides of an interesting new system: an ultrasonic ligament atomiser (ULA) that uses a hollow needle, a convergent nozzle and a shear duct to achieve the necessary high air and paint mix speed to produce droplets of narrow size distribution.
Further use of IR was shown in a curing oven schematic where an IR camera monitored the operation and Akafuah mused on whether the curing heat would come from microwave and RF energy, UV and IR combined or convection.
Jim Pakkala, engineering manager, Dürr Systems US, focused his presentation on sustainability in paint operations and he showed a process example entitled the “Effect of coating process and material on paint shop sustainability”.
In the slides, Pakkala demonstrated that while water-borne paints are lowest in VOCs, sometimes a solvent-borne process, with the low VOCs given off by modern paint chemicals combined with fewer steps due to the high build through high solids and primerless coatings that can be deposited, can be ‘greener’. A highlight of Pakkala’s presentation was an exclusive look at the JMC van plant in Nanchang, China, where a modular box layout has replaced the conventional line layout of the paintshop. He showed how the facility reached 32.5jph using 21 robots and 58 metres of scrubber length for the box concept versus 36 robots and 91 metres for a sequential line layout.
Fabrizio Mina, executive director of the Americas, Taikisha Industrial Company, started his presentation, entitled Technologies Overview for a Green Approach, by explaining how in 2011 Geico and Taikisha created a global alliance and Geico became a member of the Taikisha Group. He explained the geographic split as Geico in American (North, Centre, South), the European (including Russia) and the Middle & Near Eastern markets (and for OEMs who have JVs with companies in the above areas) and Taikisha in the Japanese and Korean areas and India, China, and other countries in Asia & Africa (and for OEMs who have JVs with companies in the above areas).
This union gives the total company considerable strength: with more than 4,000 employees in 26 countries, and with many exclusive products, the group is well placed to exploit the global marketplace.
Mina talked of the Global Energy Independence Day – 16 June 2020 when, through measures such as alternative energy production, alternative paint curing, integrated handling and overspray separation, on the head of Geico Dr Ali Reza Arabnia’s 65th birthday, paintshops will be self-powered and produce zero waste.
Mina ran through an interesting timeline, with technical achievements noted, from 2005 to the present day, charting the success of the company’s various initiatives, from its dipping rotating system J-Flex, through air recirculation, dry scrubbers, nanotechnologies, 3-wet and a new oven concept called Dryflex. He highlighted two projects: FAW and Qoros in China, which both reached SOP in 2013, both using the company's Dryspin technology, and also talked about Nissan Shatai plant, also in China, where the OEM is using water absorbing coating system called WACS. This 3-wet process produces 16% less CO2 and a gives a reduction of 27% in VOCs. He also showed the WACS method in detail and how it improves reflectivity in the final finish, even in high humidity conditions.
How efficiently you move components around a plant has a major impact on its productivity. One solution is the use of AGVs, championed by Rod Emery, vice-president of Superior Controls. His presentation offered a case study highlighting the challenges of installing a conventional steel tracked conveyor system. Emery discussed the benefits, in terms of both cost and flexibility, of utilising an inductive power transfer line and battery free AGVs.
As the conference highlighted, every detail of the vehicle manufacturing process is being scrutinised to further improve efficiency and productivity. George Jewell, vice-president of eFlex Systems explained how the company has developed ‘plug and play’ solutions, encompassing manufacturing hardware, processes, communication networks and control software. According to Jewell these are designed to offer a tailored package of solutions to optimise manufacturing processes.
Covering the current but perhaps contentious subject of collaborative robots was Michael Gerstenberger, senior engineer at KUKA Robotics. He outlined the company’s concept of more open, flexible workspaces that would offer reduced work cell areas (no fences). Gerstenberger discussed the range of applications for this technology and how the human/robot interaction had been developed. This revealed the robot functioning as additional tool to assist the human operative and highlighted the features and safeguards that have been developed to enable this. He offered a number of scenarios in which this collaboration could be used to improve efficiency in tasks that have previously been difficult to automate.