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The smart factory: Software system points to the path of success for automotive assembler


June 15, 2009
By Scott Bury

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In order to maintain their quality commitment to Ford for assembling key automotive components, Automodular needed to make sure that all their people not only were fully qualified and certified for the processes they performed, but also that each person had all the information needed to assemble each part, at the right time.
To make this happen in their plant in Oakville, Ont., Automodular turned to PinPoint Information Systems to develop a software system to communicate and verify information and track conformance to standards in real time.
Auto parts assembler Automodular is not a parts manufacturer. It buys no materials; its business model consists of setting up state of the art facilities, within close range of an OEM assembly plant, receiving component material from the OEM’s tier I supply base, and assembling complex value-added modules, and shipping in sequence to the assembly plant. In essence, Automodular sells complex assembly services to clients like Ford and General Motors in southern Ontario, and the Midwest U.S.
Every two to five minutes each day, clients like Ford send orders to Automodular electronically. The information in these orders include not only the type of part, quantity and delivery date, but complete specifications including exactly how the parts are to be assembled, torque tolerances and packaging instructions. It’s up to Automodular not just to assemble the moduless, as and when ordered, but also to ensure that all their employees operating any machines or workstations are fully certified to use that equipment to make the part in question. And they also have to be able to prove all that for an audit.
Two and a half years ago, Automodular built a new 265,000-square-foot plant in Oakville and recently completed a second 140,000 square-foot plant, specifically to serve Ford of Canada. Today, that operation makes instrument panels, power-train modules, front suspension and front cradle for the Ford Edge, its twin the Lincoln MKX, and the brand-new Ford Flex. “With those three models, and various options and builds, there can be as many as 200 different variations of instrument panels alone,” says plant general manager Denis Thibodeau.
The only way to guarantee that Ford gets what it wants, how it wants it and when it wants it, is to be sure that every person involved in production knows exactly what the order entails.
To ensure that all their equipment operators had the information they needed at their workstations when they needed it, Automodular turned to Burlington-based PinPoint, a company they had used before to develop specialized software for its Oshawa-based facility serving General Motors Oshawa Autoplex. PinPoint worked closely with the auto parts assembler, and over eight months developed a unique, customized system that they installed as the new plant was being built. When the factory went on-line, PinPoint’s system, incorporating state of the art touch-screen technology at every workstation, was live.
The smart factory
“The PinPoint system continuously receives broadcast messages from Ford, which describes what they need, when and how they need it. That information has to get communicated to the plant floor, right down to the five different assembly lines,” explains Corey Simon of PinPoint.
PinPoint’s production database sorts the information from Ford’s order and distributes it where it’s needed. Product descriptions and all the specifications each worker needs is delivered to that worker’s touchscreen workstation.
But the system goes beyond distributing information: at heart, it’s an error-control system. When the worker arrives at the workstation, they have to log into the SmartScreen client application, which then checks with the production database whether the worker has the certifications necessary to operate the equipment at hand, and whether they have the necessary training on the product being assembled. If not, the system will not allow the worker to perform the assembly.
“The SmartScreen shows every worker the latest order information and specifications needed by the customer,” says PinPoint’s Jarda Smrz. “It makes sure that the second shift has the same information as the first, and also that someone coming back after a two-week vacation is able to work with any changes or new information that may have come in during that absence.”
Assuming the worker is qualified, the SmartScreen provides the worker with the information needed for producing that day’s orders. “As the module moves down the assembly line to the next workstation, bar-code scanners ensure it’s the right part in the right place. SmartScreens display the information about the order, which parts the worker needs, where the fastenings and joints are and so on,” says Thibodeau. “The screen tells the worker the number of parts needed, where the fastenings should be and the torque required on every screw. If anything’s missed, the software won’t allow the part of move out to the next stage on the assembly line.”
This level of verification and control persists to the shipping dock. “The PinPoint system validates that the parts have been taken from the line in the proper order to meet Ford’s assembly instructions,” says Thibodeau.
The SmartScreen terminal also communicates back to the production database. This keeps management up to date, but also provides an audit trail for the customer. Management can use a simple web browser to see all the information about production. “The vehicle information number (VIN) can tell you everything about the car, or at least the components manufactured by systems in our database. It can tell you who built every part and every assembly, and whether that person was certified to do the work he or she did,” Smrz explains.
The system also provides critical feedback to the individual worker and to the manager. At the workstation, the touch-screen shows productivity data and real-time error rates; management gets an overall picture of the production flowing through the plant, and over the lunchroom door, a big-screen LCD communicates overall reports including general productivity, new instructions and the overall productivity and error rates for the plant.
“All manufacturers struggle with the same quality control issues,” says Smrz. “They have to ensure that all the latest, most relevant work instructions are available at the workstations where they’re needed. They also have to be able to guarantee that the people who built the product are qualified to do that job. And they have to be able to track each product back to the time, the place, the workstation and the person who produced it.”
The importance of flexibility
Having all the necessary information immediately helps Automodular make changeovers from product to product relatively easy. This helps keep the company nimble, able to accommodate the rapid changes of today’s global economy.
“As Ford moves to more flexible manufacturing systems, where one plant can build several different vehicles, they need their suppliers to be able to do the same,” says Smrz.
“Automodular does not buy, own or manufacture parts,” Thibodeau explains. “We are solely an assembler of our customers’ products. PinPoint helps us ensure that we have completed our value-added responsibility.”
Scott Bury is a journalist and educator based in Kanata, Ont. He regularly covers high technology and manufacturing. You can reach him at scott@writtenword.ca.


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