MES Helps Automakers Boost Flexibility, Quality

MES Helps Automakers Boost Flexibility, Quality

A modern manufacturing execution system can help improve responsiveness and master complexity by providing more efficient control and automation.

By Todd Montpas, business manager, Rockwell Automation

The automotive industry is in the midst of a major shift, moving toward more modular or “mega” platforms that can be customized to the needs of different regions, better share parts and manufacturing costs across multiple models, and help bring new vehicles to market faster.

“We're moving from global platforms to global super sets, which include vehicles, segments and markets,” said Joe Langley, a principal analyst for IHS Automotive, while speaking at the 2015 Automation Fair® event from Rockwell Automation in Chicago in November 2015. “Manufacturers are looking at modular sets to plug and play. These create economies of scale.”

As part of this shift, automakers have been making strategic investments in flexible manufacturing at their facilities. That includes being able to produce a wider range of vehicle models in a single facility, rapidly change between production of those models, and incorporate design changes faster.

In fact, Ford Motor Company marked the 100th anniversary of the assembly line with the announcement that it was undergoing a multiyear effort to make its operations more flexible. The company's goal is to produce an average of four different vehicle models at each of its global plants by 2017.

The shift from single-vehicle to multivehicle production facilities has the potential to streamline production and cut costs per car, but it also introduces more complexity into the production line and creates more opportunities for delays or errors. Too often, a flexible manufacturing approach can lead to a proliferation of smart assets and disparate systems on the plant floor with no easy way to share and contextualize the data they deliver.

Meanwhile, automakers face a host of other challenges, including:

  • Evolving product designs to meet changing consumer demands, from body refinements to driver-assistance technologies and now even autonomous capabilities.
  • Meeting fuel-efficiency standards that will increase to 54.5 mpg by 2025 in the U.S. and even higher levels elsewhere in the world.
  • Maximizing productivity and uptime to maintain high production rates and keep pace with global demand.
  • Producing consistently high-quality vehicles to retain footholds in existing markets and make headway in new ones, while reducing the likelihood of vehicle recalls.

The task for automakers is to adopt a flexible production model successfully while managing its inherent complexity and simultaneously navigating their many other challenges.

This is where taking full advantage of modern manufacturing execution system (MES) software is critical. An MES integrates automakers' production and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, allowing them to collect data from throughout their operations, contextualize and analyze it, and act on it.

In an increasingly complex and fast-moving automotive industry, an MES can help automakers create flexible and more responsive operations without sacrificing quality in the process.

Better Manage Flexibility

An MES can help automakers master the many complexities of flexible manufacturing in numerous ways.

For example, production order management can help match the requirements for assembly and subassembly processes, giving operators better control of everything from initiation to final packaging. In addition, error proofing can transform a bill of materials, work instructions and procedures into enforceable work instructions that guide operators through each production process to help increase throughput and reduce costs.

An MES also can help improve material-management activities to keep production lines moving in a flexible operation. Rather than manually managing inventory and material transactions, operators can use Kanban and just-in-time, which are material-replenishment triggers in an MES to detect when inventory is low. The system then automatically sends a request to a supplier while also sending a corresponding purchase order to accounting.

During production, the MES can synchronize material flow in parallel with vehicles as they move through the assembly line. This helps confirm continued material availability for each production sequence and reduces the likelihood of production gaps.

Create More Responsive Operations

One of the key benefits of flexible manufacturing is the ability to be more responsive to global markets and their propensity for changes. A sharp jump in the price of oil, for example, can affect consumers' buying habits overnight.

An MES can help automakers remain agile and responsive, and more quickly react to changes.

When a new order comes in, an MES can immediately obtain the order information and build data from the business system, and convert it into detailed build sheets for each shop to achieve a quick response. Shop workers can use MES information to look ahead at production sequences and retrieve the corresponding parts or tools in advance of an order. Plant managers and business leaders can use real-time, work-in-progress updates to track order statuses and other relevant information.

For new production deployments, engineers can use a library of common, automotive workflows and applications. This can be more efficient and less expensive than manually developing and deploying new applications at each station, especially when the same code is used across multiple applications.

Drive Quality

Automotive safety has been under the spotlight in recent years following a number of high-profile vehicle recalls.

In 2015, nearly 900 recalls affected more than 51 million vehicles, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's 2015 annual recall report. That was an all-time record, but only slightly higher than the nearly 800 recalls in 2014 that affected almost 51 million vehicles.

Such statistics — along with the need to protect consumers, the brand and the bottom line — provide a compelling case for making quality a top priority. However, that's easier said than done. Quality can be difficult to maintain in increasingly complex manufacturing environments. An MES can help.

Consider the MES error-proofing application that can create enforceable instructions for workers. In addition to increasing throughput, this capability can help confirm vehicle assemblies and subassemblies are built to spec. Should an error occur, hold and quarantine capabilities can help manage the affected vehicles. This can help prevent defective and potentially dangerous vehicles from reaching customers.

Genealogy and track-and-trace applications allow automakers to trace processes, production events and quality information for specific units and assemblies. With forward and backward traceability, workers can use this improved visibility to identify quality concerns originating upstream and downstream within the supply chain. Real-time product location and as-built data also can help limit the scope of recalls.

Beyond these capabilities, operators can connect real time to automation systems to capture data for process results, defects and other quality attributes. This data can support visual defect tracking, statistical process control and root-cause analysis efforts.

Consider MES a Priority

The move to more flexible operations can involve a number of significant investments and considerations — from more flexible tooling to workforce training — and an MES should be included among them. It can help achieve more efficient control and automation amid greater manufacturing complexity, support an automaker's commitment to quality, and pave the way for more responsive — and competitive — operations in this fast-moving industry.

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