Bill Gates is alleged to have once quipped that “If GM had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25 cars that got 1,000 MPG.” Even though the authenticity of this quote is questionable, it has been circulated throughout the internet for years because there is something about the sentiment that rings true to us. It certainly does not seem that the automotive industry has kept up with advancing technology the way that the computer industry has.
This may be due in part to the manufacturing infrastructure that has evolved over the years. Making sweeping upgrades to equipment and/or processes seems a very expensive and risky proposition. When you couple this with the fact that many automobile manufacturers today struggle to find enough demand for their current supply, it is easy to understand why keeping up with the latest technology isn’t always a top priority.
The problem with this reluctance, though, is that automobiles are not inexpensive consumables that people buy casually. Customers expect vehicles to come with the highest standards of safety and efficiency. Customers expect the latest technology possible. How can manufacturers keep up with this demand for innovation without changing their processes?
It seems that some manufacturers are beginning to embrace the ways of the modern industrial world, and are finding ways to align their business models with the current wave of interconnectivity and streamlined automation.
Honda Manufacturing of Alabama
Honda’s largest light truck production facility in the world – a 3.7 million square foot plant – was faced with a problem all too common to large manufacturing facilities. Over the years, a number of different automation systems were introduced to help streamline production. With operations including blanking, stamping, welding, painting, injection molding, and many other processes involved in producing up to 360,000 vehicles and engines per year, it is not surprising that they found themselves struggling to integrate PLCs from multiple manufacturers, multiple MES systems, analytic systems, and database software from different vendors.
Of course, on top of these legacy systems, Honda continued to layer an array of smart devices on the plant floor and embed IT devices in plant equipment. The complexity introduced by this array of automation systems turned out to be slowing down the operations they were intended to streamline.
After reorganizing their business structure to merge IT and plant floor operations into a single department, Honda proceeded to deploy a new automation software platform that enabled them to bring together PLC data with the data coming from MES and ERP systems into a common interface that allowed the entire enterprise to be managed through a single system. This also allowed Honda to manage and analyze much larger data sets that revealed new opportunities for further optimization. While this reorganization required a significant investment of resources, they were able realize benefits immediately, and ultimately positioned themselves to maintain a competitive edge through the next decade or more.
Ford Motor Co.
Ford Motor Company operates a global network of manufacturing operations, and have had difficulty when trying to promote collaboration and share best practices between their various plants. They found a solution using technology based on the Google Earth infrastructure.
Ford was able to develop a cloud-based application that stores 2D and 3D representations of Ford’s global manufacturing facilities, and allows users to navigate through these virtual environments, place pins, and upload video, images and documents to these pins that are shared throughout Ford’s global operations. Engineers and operators can share information about current plant conditions and procedures, which can be accessed in real time from anywhere in the world. The accumulated data can be used for training or to update standard procedures. By creating a global collaborative tool, Ford has created a means of ensuring that each and every one of their employees has the latest, most accurate information on how to best perform a particular task or how to avoid a problem that was encountered elsewhere.
We will have to see in coming years whether or not these innovations will lead to improved market performance for either of these manufacturers, but in the meantime it is probably safe to expect other companies to follow suit. With the advances in manufacturing technologies and machine-to-machine communication, it is becoming very difficult to remain competitive without playing by the same rules as everyone else. Industrial technology has advanced to the point that we are experiencing what people refer to as a new industrial era – or Industry 4.0. Reluctance is no longer a viable option.