Manufacturing AUTOMATION

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Smooth sailing: New material handling system at Ford’s crossover vehicle plant

September 22, 2005
By Richard Rix


At Ford Motor Company, new vehicles accounted for more than half its volume in sales during the past year. Among them are the Freestyle crossover vehicle and the Ford Five Hundred mid-size sedan, which has “crossover characteristics” by way of its vehicle platform, cargo capability and command-of-road seating. With its new product offering, Ford plans to establish itself as one of the industry’s largest-volume producers of all-wheel-drive vehicles and a leader in continuously variable transmissions.

The vehicles are being produced at the newly retooled Chicago Assembly Plant, Ford’s first car plant in North America that uses the company’s flexible manufacturing system. The system enables the plant to produce up to eight models based on two architectures, thanks to such amenities as a flexible body shop, where one set of tooling builds multiple vehicle configurations.

The 2.8-million square-foot Chicago Assembly Plant represents a major step forward in Ford’s revitalization plan. The plan seeks to create unique products quickly, share major components to save cost and ensure quality, match customer demand, and maximize efficiency.

To help achieve these aims, Ford relies on manufacturing tools and material handling equipment for staging products along the assembly line, while keeping workers as safe and secure as possible. The material handling role is partly being fulfilled by the installation of some 24 pieces of automated material handling equipment from SailRail Automated Systems Inc. of Markham, Ont. The equipment includes Over/Under machines for handling such components as body side apertures, rear floor pans, front structures, front sub-frames and roofs. Many of these parts are robotically picked, calling for a precision interface with the SailRail equipment. As well, SailRail has installed its largest side-by-side machine yet at the plant, for handling rear suspensions.

“We believe that the selection of our company to participate in Ford’s industry-leading project represents a massive vote of confidence in our technology and its accuracy, repeatability and reliability,” says Ian Scarth, president, SailRail. “Ford says that its new vehicles are the crossover ‘done right,’ and we like to think that the term ‘done right’ also applies to the equipment that helps Ford get the job done.” Ford now considers SailRail as a Tier 1 preferred material handling system integrator, according to Scarth.

SailRail’s Over/Under machines provide a continuous, uninterrupted supply of rack-filled components under operator or robotic control, while enabling the automated removal of empty racks from the workstation. Over/Under machines incorporate two conveying lanes, one above the other, and a vertical lift between them. The conveying lanes use the SailRail patented air-film technology to provide safe, clean, quiet movement of racks.

The air-film technology “floats” a horizontal reciprocating transportation bed that can index large groups of containers simultaneously.

The vertical lift raises the containers after they have been emptied and moves them back toward the two-tier entry point, for removal by lift truck. This allows the same lift truck that deposits loaded racks to remove the empties, keeping lift trucks productive all the time.

By operating on a two-tier basis, Over/Under machines conserve valuable floor space adjacent to the assembly line. They are available with tilts and turntables, variable pick heights and walk-in capabilities flush with the floor. Cycle times may be customized according to the size of the machine and the application, the average being around 32 seconds. The machines also help isolate assembly line workers from forklift traffic by acting as a buffer between them.

The side-by-side machine for rear suspensions is similar in operation to the Over/Under machines except that the conveying lanes are alongside one another, running in opposite directions. A 90-degree cross-transfer device shifts the newly emptied racks onto the reverse lane for transportation back to the rear. Load accumulation in the full-parts lane is with zero pressure, and as many as eight racks can be loaded at a time. Again, the same lift truck can both fetch loaded racks and carry away empties.

“The complexity of operating an automotive plant responsible for many different models on a single line means that the manufacturer must be free from worrying about support equipment, such as ours,” says Scarth. “For this reason we design it with minimal parts, maximum reliability and low maintenance requirements that are easily satisfied during normal shutdown periods.”

SailRail uses a Parametric Automated Design (PAD) tool for its engineering work and has been an ISO 9001 QSTE supplier for several years. A leading supplier of automated material handling systems, it focuses on the automotive industry, paying attention to equipment and full integration with other aspects of a plant.

“We specialize in line-feeding, conveying, exchanging and presenting racks and containers for assembly and stamping operations,” says Scarth. “On the infeed side our equipment readily interfaces with forklift trucks or SGVs (self-guided vehicles), while the outfeed side can be handled by people or robots. Our equipment fully supports the new requirements of the fork-free working environment and earns eager acceptance from plant personnel at all levels.”

Richard Rix is a Toronto-based business writer. E-mail him at