Automation Future: Automotive motives for better control

From economies of scale to economies of scope: How automotive manufacturers incorporate automation considerations into portfolio and product planning and what other manufacturers can learn.

01/03/2011


Since the early days of the moving assembly line, auto manufacturers have been focusing on increasing production output. Advanced automation and robotic systems have contributed significantly to improvements in production capacity and manufacturing process quality.

Over the last couple of decades, automakers saw a growing need to improve productivity, quality, and capacity utilization. Shifting consumer preferences and unpredictable market demands led to underutilization of manufacturing capacity in some plants, and overstressing others. To better cope with changing market demands, manufacturers increased manufacturing process agility and improved capacity utilization by creating flexible assembly lines. Some manufacturers still employ traditional methods where one plant is dedicated to building a single vehicle. Flexible assembly lines, however, can easily be retooled to build several vehicle models.

These two tried-and-true practices are now being challenged by globalization. Automakers are restructuring manufacturing operations to better take advantage of market growth in emerging economies and are pursuing a "produce where you sell" strategy, opening up new plants around the globe, often driving suppliers to follow them with direct investments. To support this strategy and to amortize development costs over larger volumes and longer production runs, certain automakers are pursuing a "world car" strategy: develop vehicles that, with minor alterations, can be assembled and sold in every major country.

Virtual plant floor, globally

In a global economy, where demand, not supply, should drive production, can manufacturers effectively and predictably manage production of multitude of product variations in plants scattered across the globe? How can automakers manage this in an environment where demand fluctuations and lead times are unpredictable and considered by many impossible to control?

Forward-looking automakers are envisioning interconnected manufacturing facilities that form a virtual global plant floor. The global plant floor is not a homogenous network of identically equipped, provisioned, and staffed plants. Rather, a mix of old and modern plants, and plants in different regions are likely to use combinations of automated and manual assembly processes; they may need to comply with different local regulations and labor laws. Consequently, new vehicles will have to be designed to fit the manufacturing capabilities of the target plant network, as well as the optimum manufacturing and distribution strategy. For instance, a design that requires precision robotic welding is not a good candidate for a plant that uses predominantly manual welding.

While manufacturers will operate a network of production facilities that blend into a single virtual plant, the global operation must allow for local variances in the assembly process that are required because of varied levels of automation, products, and regulations in the individual plants.

The notion of the global plant floor may defy common design and manufacturing practices. All manufacturers use design for manufacturing and design for assembly (DFM/A) methods to improve manufacturability to maximize the utilization of factory automation and accelerate the startup of production. However, DFM/A tends to look at a singular generic plant that employs one assembly process. 

Balance, build anywhere

Manufacturers should incorporate manufacturing strategies and specifically automation capabilities in design decisions in support of a "build anywhere" capability. In the global plant floor, the same car can be designed anywhere, and therefore the product architectures must support a broad range of assembly methods. The DFM/A process must be able to support many permutations of plant assembly capabilities, so that the assembly process can be implemented based on local demand, rather than on assembly capabilities. Furthermore, rapid growth in emerging economies will lead to corresponding investments in capacity increases through automation, shifting assembly capabilities and resulting in unbalanced capacity utilization.

Successful manufacturers will devise design and manufacturing strategies that combine design for capability with planning for capacity and accurate demand forecasting, allowing them a higher degree of production efficiency and agility.

Joe Barkai is practice director of product lifecycle strategies at IDC Manufacturing Insights. Also see the new IDC report, “The Assembly Plant of the Future – Restructuring Global Manufacturing to Meet the Challenges of the Global Economy.” www.idc-mi.com



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