Assembly lines for the Sorento at the new Kia plant in West Point, GA, are dotted with programmable electronic controls for virtually all production steps. All recently built auto plants are similarly equipped, although perhaps not to the level of Kia's.
Those controls are highly reliable. But it is precisely because repeat failures are rare that it is a problem for the greenfield Kia plant, staffed as it is by employees who had never seen anything like them before.
When a failure does occur in today's plants with a "zero defect" approach to quality control, an assembly line is shut down so the maintenance team can quickly figure out and correct what's wrong. But most causes likely will be "one-offs," so the question is how do you train "rookie" maintenance technicians to solve a problem that they—and maybe no one else—have ever seen?
Training works best with repetitive tasks. But assembly-line diagnosis and service is something else, and static circuit displays or computer animations in many factory training facilities lack a real-world feel. In plants other than Kia's, with nothing visually obvious, a maintenance technician might try to bypass circuits with jumper wires to see what happens. That's a no-no here, explained Victor Desmarais of Quick Start Georgia, the state agency that developed Kia's training center.
Kia's novel approach to training maintenance technicians features an operating model of what seems to be an assembly line. It is located in one room of the training center, which is adjacent to the plant. It's reminiscent of a model train on a track, and as one observer said, "All it needs is a Christmas tree in the center."
The model isn't quite a miniaturized assembly line, but it replicates functions of the programmed tooling on the actual lines. Parts drop into fixtures, components align, and robots put components into position and fasten them. Although it does not weld, the model line electronically simulates that too. Using this model, Kia trains the maintenance technician team in a universal diagnostic system.
The plant does some panel stamping, welding, painting, and final assembly. Powertrain assembly is done at a Hyundai plant in nearby Montgomery, AL.
When a failure occurs, a maintenance technician first goes to the scene for a visual inspection—that's still the logical opening step. If he or she sees welding slag that dripped onto a component, an obviously unplugged connector, oil on a sensor, an empty parts holder that should be filled, etc., the findings are communicated via walkie-talkie to another maintenance technician at a computer monitor.
In addition to looking for the obvious at a failure site, a maintenance technician can check status lights on virtually all sensors and actuators on the Kia assembly line. However, only some may be illuminated, because the rest rely on other componentry for the circuit feed, or their circuit is not at an active stage.
So the on-site technician maintains walkie-talkie communication with the teammate at the computer monitor. If anything that turned up as a visual issue seems to be reflected in the on-screen circuit operation, correcting that is the first step. What if there's more to the problem? Then the remote technician can quickly put a system schematic-type outline on his screen and also determine if any failures produced digital trouble codes or display circuit issues. With a mouse and keyboard, the remote technician can:
• Check sensor readings and force actuators on each circuit, one leg at a time, to see if they work and if they're in adjustment;
• Check controller drivers for consistent output signals;
• Observe the on-screen representation of the electrical behavior of each piece of equipment. The remote technician even has the capability to stop a function mid-cycle and, each step of the way, can ask the on-site technician if the computer representation aligns with what status lights are on and what actuators actually move.
It is true that at times a part may seem to respond sluggishly or otherwise behave suspiciously on the screen, but the status light goes on, telling the on-site technician the part is good. So the on-site maintenance technician may have to pick up a meter and check for a confirming voltage at a terminal. This team approach is expected to isolate the problem quickly and enable the on-site technician to make a knowledge-based repair.
For training purposes, the model assembly line has a panel at which a trainer can simulate a variety of failures, so broad diagnostic principles can be taught. In the real world in which they work, the assembly-line on-site maintenance technician and diagnostic center maintenance technician will be far apart, communicating verbally. So even in the training center, the two technicians in the same room are separated by a partition and cannot see each other. Here, too, they communicate on walkie-talkies. They have to learn both teamwork and trust, and it starts right there.