Prompted by the grim realities of a floundering economy, low consumer confidence, and a 180-degree shift in demand from big trucks and SUVs to smaller, more fuel-efficient passenger vehicles, America’s three major automotive manufacturers are making changes that will enable the industry to cast off Henry Ford’s “one size fits all” manufacturing mentality.
These changes will be the foundation for a truly flexible development environment in which car designs are more in tune with the public’s wants, needs, and desires. The challenge will be staying financially viable during this transition, which could take several years to implement. When implemented, flexibility and standardization on the assembly line floor will have a profound effect on the business of producing cars by allowing the automotive manufacturers to: control the supply and demand of each vehicle model; regionalize production of specific vehicles to the areas they will be sold; introduce new models quickly while reducing investments in infrastructure; balance regional production capacity to meet local demand; and streamline the production of vehicles by incorporating fewer variables into all facets of the process.
The introduction of the first hybrid vehicles highlighted a significant unfulfilled demand for more fuel-efficient cars. This shift also brought renewed focus on alternative-fuel vehicles and a commitment both by governments and the automotive industry to ensure the future success of these technologies. General Motors, for instance, has announced plans to work with more than 40 utilities to ready the power grid for electric vehicles including the Chevrolet Volt, expected to be in showrooms by 2010.
Overall, industry analysts agree that meeting this demand is a step in the right direction, but questions remain about automakers' ability to execute such massive initiatives under their current time and financial restraints. Mark Warnsman, analyst for Calyon Securities, noted that Ford has “a good plan,” but “they've got to stay in business long enough to make it work." This candid feedback provides both optimism and caution for the industry, which needs to identify and implement other changes to stabilize their businesses for the short and long term.
The Achilles' heel of the American manufacturing machine has been its ability to reconfigure manufacturing facilities to produce minor changes in vehicle designs. The need to overhaul facilities that produce large trucks and SUVs to instead produce fuel-efficient cars and potential hybrid vehicles provides a golden opportunity to reinvent this essential infrastructure that is the heart of each automaker.
The key to success is enabling these facilities to continually adapt to changing consumer behaviors and the evolving technologies surrounding hybrid and alternative-fuel technologies. To do that, U.S. automakers need to standardize automation and control system platforms to adjust to new designs and replicate proven designs. This will enable them to quickly respond to changing demand in each country. By engineering once and deploying over and over when and where it is most economical, automakers will improve vehicle quality and reduce costs.
An untapped resource for manufacturers is the global automation and control providers that can simplify the standardization of components across facilities and equipment suppliers. They can help ensure that systems meet stringent requirements for responsiveness, communications, energy efficiency, and many other variables, regardless of where in the world they are implemented. Schneider Electric, for instance, can ensure consistency across facilities and provide training and support to local resources by using project teams dedicated to the customer.
Global automation providers also offer virtual manufacturing simulation tools that can significantly reduce implementation times and enhance manufacturing efficiency and flexibility. New virtual validation software can eliminate the trial-and-error method of optimization by testing manufacturing processes and their control systems, simulating potential changes, viewing the implications, and error-proofing the production process before the first actual implementation. The results of this approach have been extraordinary with some automotive manufacturers dramatically reducing the time and expense normally required in a traditional body shop design and installation process.
Additional benefits include improved diagnostics and maintenance. Diagnostics related to machine performance allow maintenance personnel to get production back up and running faster after a problem. It also prevents downtime by predicting when maintenance or replacement may be needed based on actual machine run time and number of cycles.
John Boville of Schneider Electric wrote this article for Automotive Engineering.