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How Auto Makers Can Improve Their Manufacturing Velocity

June 17, 2014
Automotive Manufacturers Benefit from Enterprise-Wide Infrastructure, Real-Time Information Visibility and Workforce Productivity

Todd Montpas, Market Development Manager, Automotive & Tire, Rockwell Automation.

There's no slowing down in the automotive industry. Customers with a range of differing priorities mean you're producing more vehicles in more variations than ever, while also undergoing more frequent design refreshes. This is in addition to meeting fuel-efficiency regulations and serving emerging global markets under increasingly tight profit margins.

Most manufacturers have transitioned from traditional one-vehicle, one-plant production models to producing multiple vehicles in multiple variations at a single location. Delivering this flexible manufacturing capability while reducing downtime and maximizing output is a critical challenge. Vehicle design changes can't simply be “thrown over the wall,” from the design center to the manufacturing floor.

You must find ways to sequence all of these things into your plants while negating or minimizing the complexity that's driven into your operations. That means initiating manufacturing velocity strategies and solutions that enable you to deliver the right products at the right time and with the right quality.

Manufacturing velocity strategies incorporate three key components: infrastructure, information visibility and workforce productivity. By addressing manufacturing velocity, you can respond to customer demands more quickly and get to market faster without hurting the bottom line. Let's examine how you can speed manufacturing velocity to respond better to current and future challenges.

Flexible Infrastructure

Plants dedicated to manufacturing single vehicles are outdated. Auto-manufacturing plants must be flexible, capable of producing multiple vehicles in multiple variations, all on a single line.

With the increase in flexible manufacturing come more parts, more variation and programs, and more interfaces to robots and other devices. Additionally, you must be able to maintain continual operations without reprogramming all of your equipment or reconfiguring your entire control architecture to ensure that output and productivity remain high.

You need an enterprise-wide infrastructure to support these flexible manufacturing needs. That includes integrating flexible equipment and tooling that can quickly and easily adjust for different vehicle variations and sizes on the same production line.

Equally important are the business systems that provide a real-time window into your manufacturing operations and supply chain to keep all parties informed by providing visibility into the constantly changing production stream.

To support the flow of all of this critical information, achieving a truly connected enterprise that can get data securely to and from machines and people — at every level, in any location and in the right context — is vital. Using a unified control and networking infrastructure that's IP-centric can help ensure all devices within an automotive plant can talk with one another, increasing the amount of available information and, thus, creating more room for agility and innovation.

An information-enabled control and information system that uses EtherNet/IP can help you more easily move toward the use of a single network, streamline multiple disciplines and applications into a single package and help enable secure and easy flow of production data.

EtherNet/IP allows you to leverage the availability of hundreds of IP-based devices — including those that weren't originally designed for an industrial setting — to help increase productivity, quality, efficiency and safety on the plant floor.

On top of this, you should integrate a manufacturing execution system (MES) into your enterprise and plant-floor operations to help synchronize your manufacturing tasks, quality procedures and inventory movements throughout production. An MES also enables you to capture vehicle-production information for regulatory compliance, warranties and continuous-improvement analysis.

Incorporating more information into the manufacturing process also enables customer feedback to reach the production line faster. Whereas it once took months for enough feedback to make its way back to manufacturers, it now can be done in days. Today's vehicles are smart enough that they can be plugged in for a diagnostic check, and any issues can be reported back immediately to the plant. That puts the onus on the plant to have a connected enterprise in place that's robust enough to route the information to the necessary workers so they can quickly address quality issues on the line.

Information Visibility

Having real-time information visibility can help you:

  • Understand what's happening across your enterprise, such as production workflows, overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), supplier deliveries, production times, parts inventories, etc.
  • Predict downtime events before they happen and intervene as needed.
  • Distribute event data or other information to the appropriate personnel so they can make necessary adjustments.

Understanding the effect disruptions can have and then relaying the relevant information across the enterprise to the right people can mean the difference between stalled and on-time production. This could include notifying a maintenance technician with relevant tooling information or informing scheduling personnel about supply-rerouting options.

Production information also can be compiled and compared, whether it's within a single plant or across an enterprise. The use of comparative data has the potential to identify efficiencies, trends and best practices across your operations. For example, why does it take 10% longer to produce the same platform in one plant vs. another? Why is quality varying between production runs? The answer exists; it simply needs to be mined from your operations.

Workforce Productivity

A highly skilled and multitalented workforce that performs multiple jobs offers greater productivity and complements the latest automation technologies. Autoworkers need cross training to build their understanding and expertise across multiple areas.

Additionally, as automakers enter emerging markets, they need to replicate the successful operations they've built in established markets. Delivering comprehensive training to these employees is critical.

Nothing Stays the Same

Increased globalization and better-connected operations likely will push vehicle refreshes to occur at an even faster speed than today. At the same time, production volumes are only going to increase.

These factors will put continued pressure on the auto industry to be more versatile in its operations. They could also push the need for flexibility from the manufacturing level down to the supplier level. For the auto manufacturers that aren't putting in place strategies and solutions that can speed their manufacturing velocity today, these future challenges will prove all the more difficult to overcome tomorrow.

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