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4 areas to optimize in automotive plants

June 2, 2015
Workforce, processes, equipment and safety are the four key areas on the plant floor to help generate continual improvements in productivity and uptime
From the Feb. 2015 issue of The Journal from Rockwell Automation and Our PartnerNetwork

In today's rapid-paced world of automotive manufacturing, there's no room for inefficiencies or unnecessary downtime. In an industry where vehicles are produced by the minute, shaving mere seconds from a manufacturing process can help automakers produce one or two additional vehicles per day. Such improvements can make a real difference for automakers, particularly given the high production quotas and critical profits attached to each vehicle.

Unfortunately, demands within the industry make production optimization a challenge.

First, vehicle demand continues to surge. IHS Automotive estimates global auto sales will exceed 85 million vehicles in 2014, which would be the fifth straight year of record sales. This is driven by resurging major markets and emerging growth markets. According to a Credit Week report, "The Global Auto Industry Shifts Its Focus To Overseas and Emerging Markets," emerging markets accounted for just more than half of the global light-vehicle sales in 2010 — a first in the industry's history.

At the same time, challenges abound on the plant floor. Most automotive plants now produce multiple vehicle makes and models, while vehicle refreshes occur much more frequently in response to customers' continually evolving demands. As a result, plant managers face a dilemma. Production must be continuous so they can get more out of their plants than ever before. Yet changeovers are more frequent, and an unprecedented amount of complexity is being driven into the plant.

However, even amid these challenges, opportunities exist in four key areas on the plant floor to help generate continual improvements in both productivity and uptime.

1. Workforce

Worker preparedness should be a key part of any new plant or vehicle launch. It's important to empower workers with the knowledge they'll need about the machines, tools, procedures and processes they're expected to use. Set baseline skills goals for new facility launches and conduct an assessment to see where skills stand for new vehicle launches, so a training program works toward a specific goal.

Also consider adopting new technologies that can deliver high-quality information to employees to help maximize productivity. Alarms and pages may alert workers to the fact that something is wrong, but they might not tell workers where to go or what needs to be addressed.

Modern information systems can deliver detailed diagnostic information to high-definition display boards or even to workers' smartphones in role- and location-based context, enabling faster corrective action to be taken. In many cases, support technicians and service providers no longer need to be on-site 24/7 and can remotely monitor your plant's systems and machines safely and securely.

2. Processes

On the plant floor, flexible, demand-driven manufacturing models mean that production schedules vary not only by the day, but by the minute. On the business side, data must be gathered across dozens or even hundreds of systems and then interpreted, shared and reported across multiple levels. As a result, merging these disparate processes and data to establish a more cohesive and efficient operation can be difficult.

One solution is model predictive control (MPC) technology, which can compare current and predicted operational data against desired results to provide new control targets. This can help minimize process variability and inefficiencies, as well as improve process consistency and part quality. A scalable and flexible manufacturing execution system (MES) also can integrate plant-floor production systems with an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system to optimize manufacturing across multiple facilities.

3. Equipment

Equipment is among an automaker's greatest capital investments, but equipment improvements don't have to require major expenditures. Something as simple as component migration, for example, can help an automaker take advantage of features and functions at the right level of the architecture to deliver better performance.

Improving diagnostics also can minimize equipment downtime and reduce effects on production. Embedded advanced diagnostics technology can help workers more quickly detect problems and know exactly what to repair. This technology also can support predictive diagnostics, in which potential problems are spotted before they become downtime events and then corrected during planned maintenance downtime.

4. Safety

Safety is inseparable from an automaker's workforce, equipment and processes. Therefore, it should be viewed holistically, across all aspects of an operation, rather than as a separate, add-on element.

A holistic approach should address safety in three key areas: culture (behavioral), compliance (procedural) and capital (technical). Best-in-class manufacturers that holistically apply safety achieve not only lower injury rates than average performers, but also higher overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and less unscheduled downtime. This helps put to rest the idea that safety can only be a drag on productivity.

In the capital area, new technologies allow a machine to continue running at a designated safe speed even when the safety door is open, as opposed to stopping machines every time a problem arises on the line. Integrated safety controllers, which allow safety and control systems to work in tandem, also can improve machine diagnostics and help reduce downtime.

On track for success

Automakers can expect challenges only to increase and evolve, while the need to minimize production costs and increase efficiencies will continue. An ongoing commitment to continuous improvement in workers, processes and equipment, combined with a holistic approach to safety, will better prepare automakers for the future.

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