Taking control of controls

Ford’s 10-year operational evolution started with network standards.

By Bob Vavra April 15, 2019

Ford Motor Company believes it has created a unique approach to manufacturing by taking control of its control system.

In a press tour of its Livonia, Mich. transmission plant in March, Ford officials discussed their 10-year journey to centralize all control systems within the 2 million sq. ft. facility while also completely revamping the manufacturing floor itself. The bright lights and clean floors in the plant provide workers with an inviting work environment. The standardized system gives them the muscle to work effectively.

“We locked down hardware standards and we locked down network standards,” said Mike Bastian, digital systems integration manager, powertrain Ford Motor Company. “We architected standardized naming convention and began mass deployment of Ethernet from main controls to line controls. The software is where you can introduce change, and if it’s standardized, you can introduce new software, test it, replicate it and scale it.”

Ford began to evolve its manufacturing operations in Livonia with control system standards, but knew it also needed to rebuild the plant. “In 2010, there was mist in the air and oil on the ground. If you’ve been around manufacturing for a long time, you know what it feels like,” said Livonia plant manager Bob Groden. The plant reduced its operation footprint from 2.7 million sq. ft. to just 500,000 as the renovations started. By 2016, it had expanded to 850,000 sq. ft. “Now we’re up to 2 million sq. ft. of manufacturing space,” Groden said. “We tore out the floor, put in new concrete, installed new lights, did a floor to ceiling rebuild. It’s now safe, neat and orderly. We now have 2,300 hourly employees, and we will add 25 percent more this year.”

Ford Livonia officials said the renovation has been as much about people as process. “The main reason we have success is the workforce here,” said Keith Miller, UAW Local 182 president and chairman. “Everything we do on a daily basis truly pays off. We spend countless hours with new employees here. We do spend a lot of time, and that time pays off. The relationship is great. Bob and I are very proud of it.”

“To get all this to work, to get operations to launch, is a people story,” Bastian added. “You can provide data like crazy, but if the operations team is not using the data, it’s not worth anything.”

To make sure the data is both available and useful, Ford has spent the last decade fine-tuning its controls and the software that supports it while working to get transmissions out the door. “We wanted to have global scale execution. We wanted to make sure it works,” Bastian said.

“It’s the same code. We have very tight version management on software. The foundation we’ve laid here is tying engineering tools to data sets. If you don’t have standardization, linking the physical world to the virtual world is almost impossible to achieve.”

For Ford, edge computing and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is not as much a new concept as it is giving a name to what they’ve already been doing. “When we think about (IIoT), we’ve been on that journey since 2008. It’s all been about standardization around controls, and network-level hardware.”

In 2017, Ford rebranded its use of digital manufacturing engineering strategies to focus on three concepts:

  • Digital design: Linking the virtual machining
  • Digital factory: Embracing the concept of a full digital twin
  • Digital tools: Mapping the engineering factory.

“We’ve used digital engineering tools across all programs,” said Jon Guske, Livonia’s engineering manager for feasibility. “With standardization, we can pull in information, validate that in early design phase, and that creates a full circle of information. We’re able to take the digital point cloud and build into 3-D models able to better simulate exactly what’s going to happen. 3-D printing has been used across powertrain in prototype castings and for rapid design for fixture development. Digital tools have been an enabler.”

Aligning Ford’s operations and systems comes at a time when the automobile manufacturer is itself reimagining its product line. Over the next five years, the company will concentrate on SUVs and trucks and will stop manufacturing sedans. The Livonia plant, which manufacturers the transmissions for Ford’s iconic F-150 pickup truck, will be at the center of that transformation, and Groden believes the plant and its people are ready for the challenge.

“What I found is if you commit to safety of the people and quality for the product and show loyalty, you build up trust in the workforce,” he said. “Once you build up that trust, you can get productivity.”

Long before the phrase “digital transformation” became part of the manufacturing conversation, Ford Motor Company was focusing on transforming the way it gathered and used data to affect manufacturing.

Ford’s digital transformation timeline

Here’s the timeline Ford officials discussed during a press tour in Livonia, Michigan in March:

1990s: The company was focused on high volume manufacturing. “From controls point of view, we were zone control,” said Mike Bastian, digital systems integration manager, powertrain for the Ford Motor Company. “We had very basic machine monitoring.”

1995: The Ford Production System was launched. Powertrain manufacturing was centralized and all programming done in the plant. “It gives you a lot of creativity, but there were problems with standardization,” Bastian said.

2000: Ford began to implement a flexible manufacturing system. The company initiated condition monitoring in machining systems and began standardized bill of processes.

2005: Instituted medium volume assembly lines. They began to use parallel path machining with CNCs.

2008: The company began its first efforts to create a digital manufacturing process, beginning with a global control standards. “We standardized our IT footprint at that point and began the transition to distributed control and machine condition monitoring,” said Bastian.

2017: Ford rebranded its use of digital tools, digital manufacturing organization and developed a U-shaped machining lines for engines and transmissions

Author Bio: Bob is the Content Manager for Plant Engineering.