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Increased globalisation and better-connected operations will likely push vehicle refreshes to occur at an even faster speed than what’s taking place today

Image: Rockwell Automation
2 Ratings

Automotive Manufacturing velocity

Sep 1, 2016

The article addresses the changing automotive landscape and explains why automakers need to speed up with their operations so as to remain competitive and better respond to current and future global challenges

There’s no slowing down in the automotive industry. A customer base with a range of differing priorities for new-vehicle purchases – including safety, fuel efficiency, performance, design and options – means you’re producing more vehicles in more variations than ever, while also undergoing more frequent design refreshes. This is in addition to meeting the latest fuel-efficiency regulations, serving emerging global markets and tightening profit margins.

Manufacturing velocity strategies incorporate three key components: infrastructure, information visibility and workforce productivity. By addressing manufacturing velocity, one can respond to customer demands around the world more quickly and get to market faster, without hurting the bottomline.

Need for speed

While the fortunes of automakers have greatly improved, the road forward will still have its bumps. Some of the greatest challenges include continued pressure to remain profitable, meeting increasingly stringent fuel-efficiency requirements, and expanding operations into new markets and delivering products that satisfy a consumer base with an ever-increasing range of demands.

Profitability: The world’s largest auto manufacturers annually produce anywhere from about 3 million to more than 10 million cars across their global operations. Such a high level of output means hundreds of vehicles are driving off production lines around the globe every minute. Combining this with fixed profits attached to every vehicle, it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on plant managers to ensure that the downtime is kept to a minimum and productivity remains high.

Improved fuel economy: High fuel prices and ever-increasing fuel-efficiency standards are forcing automakers to deliver better performing vehicles, hybrid and electric alternatives and diesel-based vehicles. Additionally, as gas prices fluctuate, so does consumer demand. The operations must be flexible enough to quickly react to these fluid changes in demand.

Consumer demand: Demand goes deeper than the price of fuel. As cars become more advanced, better connected and in general smarter, consumers want the latest features and styles. Vehicle models that once endured years with minimal changes now undergo regular refreshes. The term ‘early adopter’ doesn’t only apply to those who want the latest smart phones or high-definition TVs – it’s just as applicable to the consumers who also want the most-current vehicle models with the latest technologies.

New markets: According to projections from IHS Automotive for 2012 to 2020, light-vehicle production will increase about 50% in South America. It will also significantly increase in China, from about 18 million vehicles in 2012 to more than 30 million in 2020, and jump from about 8 million to more than 13 million in South Asia and lead to an increase 10 to 20% in North America and Europe, with most growth coming from Eastern Europe.

Life in the fast lane

Vehicle refreshes – whether midyear or every other year, have impacts on the people, processes and machinery in the operations. Vehicle design changes – whether an added small crease in the back of a car, new taillights or a new phone dock – can be relatively small with minimal impacts on the overall equipment. But they can require tooling changes, supplier revisions, station changes and more.

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

Manufacturing velocity encompasses three main components—having the right infrastructure in place, producing information in the right form factor, for the right people and at the right time and employing a highly skilled, multi-talented workforce.


With the increase in flexible manufacturing comes more parts, more variation and programs, and more interfaces to robots and other devices. Additionally, one must be able to maintain continual operations without re-programming all of the equipment or reconfiguring the entire control architecture to ensure that output and productivity remain high. An enterprise-wide infrastructure is needed 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 as important are the business systems that provide a real-time window into the manufacturing operations and supply chain to keep all parties informed with 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 is 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 utilises EtherNet/IP can help to more easily move towards 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, a manufacturing execution system (MES) should be integrated into the enterprise and plant-floor operations to help synchronise the manufacturing tasks, quality procedures and inventory movements throughout production. An MES also enables to capture vehicle-production information for regulatory compliance, warranties and continuous-improvement analysis.

Information visibility

A survey conducted by TechValidate and Rockwell Automation® of auto manufacturing executives from around the world found that nearly two-thirds of respondents said they were ‘very confident’ that their organisation was accurately interpreting the production data generated by their current systems. That’s an encouraging statistic, because to operate efficiently, one needs to understand what’s happening in manufacturing operations and across supply chain.

Having real-time information visibility can help understand what’s happening across an enterprise (production work flows, OEE, supplier deliveries, production times, parts inventories, etc.), predict downtime events before they happen and intervene as needed and distribute event data or other information to the appropriate personnel so they can make any necessary adjustments.

Workforce productivity

According to the Center for Automotive Research report ‘The Big Leave: The Future of US Automotive Human Resources’, the nature of production work is becoming more and more complex as the product – and the technology used to build it – become more and more advanced. This production complexity necessitates employing workers who may not have higher levels of formal academic preparation beyond high school or a GED, but nevertheless can demonstrate higher literacy and numeracy levels and more advanced communication and team skills than were previously required of automotive manufacturing workers.

Because their responsibilities are greater and their expertise more diverse, auto workers today more than ever, need to receive cross training to build their understanding and expertise across multiple areas. For example, maintenance technicians need to receive comprehensive training for the increasingly complicated machines found on the plant floor and the plethora of devices that are being connected to them. These connected technologies continue to become more advanced, and the roles are beginning to blur between what the IT department and the maintenance technicians will each be responsible for managing.

As technologies allow plant managers to view comparative data across plants, that data needs to be incorporated into training programs. Operational improvements, after all, are only as good the people who implement them.

Additionally, as automakers launch operations in emerging markets, they’re striving to replicate the successful operations they've built in their established markets. That means employing highly-skilled employees in countries that may lack the experienced workforce that they’re accustomed to drawing from. Delivering comprehensive training to these employees is critical.

Beyond training, productivity can be optimised in a number of other ways. One key area is asset management, where a four-step approach can help get more out of facility assets, while also minimising downtime:

  • Evaluate – assessing existing processes for inventory management and maintenance needs

  • Design – identifying process efficiencies, as well as areas where inventory and production issues can be improved

  • Implement – putting into place processes that will improve productivity, reduce costs and enable financial predictability

  • Measure & Optimise – using analytics and reporting tools to drive continuous improvement

The auto manufacturer of tomorrow

Increased globalisation and better-connected operations will likely push vehicle refreshes to occur at an even faster speed than what’s taking place today. At the same time, production volumes are only going to increase. These factors will put continued pressure on the auto industry to be ever more versatile in its operations. They could also push the need for flexibility from the manufacturing level, down to the supplier level.

Additionally, continued pressure to improve fuel economy in vehicles is likely to lead to significant design changes. The use of composite materials, for example, could be used more in place of aluminum. That will have a major change on production operations – such as replacing welding with fasteners, rivets and screws – and will also drive plant operators to rethink their facility layouts and production processes.

Courtesy: Rockwell Automation

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