Nothing complex about flexibility

  • 22-Apr-2009 01:13 EDT
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Yazaki's George Perry talks about the cost of complexity at a Wednesday morning session on production flexibility in the SAE Executive Business Theater.

The ever-changing world of automotive production begs for flexible solutions.

When vehicle production schedules get scrambled, the accompanying message is "you've become an intensive care patient," Timm Kellermann, Principal and North American Lead for Consulting4Drive GmbH, said to kick-start a panel discussion. Kellermann was the moderator of the Wednesday morning session addressing flexible production strategies.

Vehicle demands change, especially in a bad economy. So having a flexible manufacturing process can be highly beneficial. "Planning for flexible solutions must start at the concept stage and include a definition of the target market and features or functions needed to be competitive in the chosen segments," said George Perry, President and CEO of Yazaki North America, a privately held, family-owned company with operations in 39 countries.

Being competitive usually means following a few rules. Unstable production schedules, engineering changes, and part-number complexity—which Perry classified as being abhorrent to suppliers—are on the not-to-do list. Planning is on the to-do list, especially planning "up front for flexibility," Perry said.

"Understand that the opposite of flexibility is complexity, and the cost of complexity is spread around throughout the supply chain—some in manufacturing, some in engineering, and some in just maintaining drawings," said Perry, adding that it is truly important to understand the cost of complexity.

Honda's flexible manufacturing practices make it possible for the automaker to react relatively quickly to changes in product demands. As an example, Honda recently switched production of the Ridgeline pick-up truck from Canada to Alabama, and the automaker expects to shift some of its V6 Accord production from Marysville, Ohio to Alabama this summer. Being flexible on the manufacturing front doesn't just happen.

"It starts with a clear vision and smart execution at all levels of your company," said Larry Jutte, Senior Vice President of Honda of America Manufacturing, Inc. Because the automaker uses standardized equipment and processes, the rewards include cost savings and the ability to meet customer demands. "We continue to see this (flexible production strategy) pay dividends," Jutte said.

Edward Mabley, CEO of Facton, said all vehicle manufacturers should have a goal of being able to "build any vehicle of any type at any location around the globe." A common vehicle architecture plan is similar to playing golf. "If the initial architecture is good, the swing plane can be maintained and a shot is good," Mabley enthused.

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