AMS magazine is 10 years old this year. During this time, it has reported on some of the most exciting - and turbulent - times in car making’s history
10 years, quite neatly about one-tenth of the history of automotive mass production. What an extraordinary decade this has been. We have learned a lot while charting the automotive industry over the past 10 years – and even sometimes enjoyed positive reader comments - we thought it better to ask some of our contacts in the industry to tell us their experiences and observations on a decade that has seen more change in car making than any that has come before.
The past 10 years has been especially significant in manufacturing location terms. As developing nations have grown in economic stature and wealth has filtered down to new segments of the population, so demand for vehicles from both indigenous carmakers and foreign manufacturers has increased dramatically. The so-called BRIC countries, Brazil, Russia, India and China, have all seen major increases in their ‘middle classes’; a growing demographic who, previously reliant on inefficient public transport systems, two-wheeled vehicles or even horsedrawn carts, would now be able to become part of the car-owning class.
While there had been slow but steady growth in vehicle sales, it was the launch of the Tato Nano that heralded the start of a dynamic shift towards four-wheeled transportation.
Billed as the world’s cheapest car, the Nano was set to cost just $1,979; with deliveries starting in July 2009.
Tata hoped the three-metre long, five-seat car would be cheap enough to encourage millions of Indians to trade up from their motorcycles.
Tata owner Ratan Tata said at the time: "I think we are at the gates of offering a new form of transport to the people of India and later, I hope, other markets elsewhere in the world.” A slightly bigger European version, the Nano Europa is due to follow in 2011, and is expected to cost nearer £4,000.
Building greenfield plants for the new car in India proved to be problematic. Tata had to abandon plans to build the Nano in a new plant in the eastern state of West Bengal due to farmers contesting ownership of the land on which the plant was built. This caused the launch of the Nano to be put back by six months.
Now, the main Nano factory is in the western state of Gujarat; a plant that will build 250,000 cars a year, though will not open until 2010. In the meantime, Tata will build a reduced number of Nanos, about 50,000, with production spread between its existing plants.
Whether the Nano points the way forward for more OEMs’ product plans remains to be seen. Other low-priced vehicles have been launched with varying degrees of success by Renault (Logan, in Europe), GM (Celta, in South America); there are examples in most major regions, vehicles with either reduced specification or models based on adapted ‘western’ ranges, made either under licence or through joint ventures in developing regions.
From the 1980s to early 2000s, the global spread of vehicle making was one of the hottest topics with almost any OEM; before the current economic downturn it was expected by many that the industry would aggressively grow, spreading production to every country in the world. It has not quite worked out like that. As regions have demanded more vehicles, so local carmakers have risen to the challenge.
For example, there are thought to be more than 1,000 carmakers in China alone, many producing poor-quality, reverse-engineered copies of ‘western’ vehicles, or others like SAIC’s Roewe, making run-out models bought from ‘first-world’ OEMs.
For the big western carmakers, the decade has seen a shift in strategy.
These companies have gone from creating region-specific platforms to pushing adaptable global vehicle architectures, in order to benefit from economies of scale.
GM’s Gary Cowger: “10 years ago, the GM Manufacturing Footprint was made up of plants operated by independent business units within GM, across multiple regions of the world.
These plants were predominately building products off of regional platforms, for local markets. Today, our global manufacturing footprint is a global network of plants, building products off of global architectures, with a common bill of process, and using our global manufacturing system. These plants serve multiple markets, resulting in lower investment, lower structural cost, reduced lead time, and higher plant utilization.”
Ford’s Joseph Hinrichs noted another important factor: the rise in global customer expectations in regards to higher levels of specification and quality: “Globally, we are moving to a common footprint versus the past. In the past we ran prior cycle products in some regions and allowed for a lot of customization at the regional and local levels. Now all regions of the world are demanding the same quality and performance levels as the established Western markets. This has dramatically changed the level of manufacturing technology deployed in the emerging markets.”
Michel Gornet sees the spread of Renault’s activities as a positive change; its one area where there has been even more change than in the technology used to build cars: “Globalization is probably where we have seen the biggest changes over the past decade. Starting with Brazil, 10 years ago, all areas have been exciting with different challenges in different regions. The Logan has been a very exciting challenge; using the Renault manufacturing system to develop the vehicle, adapting an ‘idea’ of a car and making it within the target price while maintaining Renault quality standards.”
Toyota’s Total Production System has acquired near-mythic status in the industry. Didier Leroy sees the company’s core strength as being able to adapt to market conditions around the world: “At Toyota we have seen large and rapid growth over the last 10 years, but we have maintained the key values of the company based on what we call the Toyota Way – of course, TPS has been benchmarked every where in the world, making us confident in our methods. The current big change in the market pushes us to adjust our business model to the new conditions; we will do it very quickly by coming back to the spirit of the origin of our company.”
For all carmakers working on firstgeneration vehicles (not run-out or reverse-engineered models), one of the biggest changes that manufacturing has had to manage over the last 10 years is the product migration to lower-mass architectures. Lower-mass designs are an enabler to better fuel economy, performance and the use of green technology, such as hybrids. The use of aluminium and high-strength steels are much more mainstream in today's vehicle designs, resulting in more forming and joining challenges than experienced on previous product development cycles. Gary Cowger gives the GM view: “Introduction of high-strength steels allows Product Engineering to improve performance of strength-dominated parts at lower mass and cost by reducing material gauge. The manufacturing challenges that are associated with the use of high-strength steels, most notably dimensional control and springback, are managed through multiple die iterations.”
Joseph Hinrichs cites tooling as an area where he has seen body-in-white technology move on the most for Ford:
“One of the most significant advances has been the shift from hard tooling to fully-flexible assembly systems which can handle multiple platforms/ architectures. The tooling systems have taken advantage of advances in robot and weld control technology that have greater reliability and quality performance at lower cost. Another significant advance is the use of virtual manufacturing technology that enables simultaneous engineering of tooling systems during product development to improve cost and quality performance.”
A second challenge faced by manufacturing in body-in-white is the increasing demand by customers for improved levels of quality. In many cases, that demand is accompanied by a customer belief that quality is not price recoverable; it is expected, no matter the vehicle price. A case in point would be vehicle fit and finish, particularly gap and flush performance. Renault’s Michel Gornet on the technology advances that have enabled Renault to raise its quality game: “The most significant gains have been made with technologies like laser welding, more ‘two dimensional’ flexibility – enabling different models (bodystyles) on the same lines at the same time, and allowing quicker complete model line changes. Fixtures have also become more streamlined. We are using lighter, less solid metal fixtures, and using more software to create the geometry for manufacturing operations. We have greater accuracy in the stamped parts and as we now use much lighter body parts that do not need as heavyweight fixtures as in the past, and robots are more accurate and stable.
For Didier Leroy, perhaps typical of Toyota’s reputation for accuracy and quality, measurement and repeatability are key: “For the body-in-white, the most impact has been ‘on-line measurement’, which has improved body accuracy a great deal. New technologies for robots have been also introduced, which have helped achieve higher density, so less space is required for production operations.”
Increasing automation and accuracy in machining operations, hard turning, laser welding of gears and shafts and greater reliance on cold test have been some of the trends that have emerged over the decade. Gary Cowger: “For our powertrain operations, the largest change has been our CNC machining centers being transitioned from prototyped to production machines.
This gives us greater ability for lean/ agile/flexible operations. The advanced machine controls allow us to now ‘live in microns’ and deliver with precision flexible, cost-effective engines and transmissions.”
Ford’s powertrain operations has produced many award-winning engines over the past decade and production techniques have contributed strongly to the quality and ‘manufacturability’ of these powerplants. Joseph Hinrichs puts this down to several factors: “The movement to minimal coolant machining, the changes in the use of inline and cold tests as compared to hot tests for engines, the further development and deployment of CNC equipment, and the flexibility of both engine/transmission architectures and the processes that build them – these are the major developments in powertrain manufacturing over the last decade. The use of upfront tools (virtual and rapid prototype, for example) is also having a major impact: to drive standardization and simplification in the future.”
Looking back at AMS articles from 1999, several engine plant managers were proudly displaying their 100% hot test programmes – running every new motor to full temperature, some even routinely running power tests.
Equipment development, machining quality and environmental considerations have pushed most OEMs down the cold test route and even added to the efficacy of the tests. Gary Cowger: “We can check many parameters like vibration and temperature and we can do it without running on fuel or natural gas. The electronics can map a signature of an engine and map the parameters of what is good in the engine or what has changed.”
For Joseph Hinrichs, one of the most significant advances in powertrain has been: “Elimination of 100% hot test of engines. The standard today is the first time an engine fires up is at the end of vehicle final assembly prior to the rolls test. This was unthinkable only a few years ago. Another factor has been the move from end-of-line to in-process testing, including cold test, resulting in significant improvement in right first time quality. The advances we have seen in powertrain technology could not have been managed/qualified with the historical hot test approach.”
Michel Gornet sees gains in all areas:
“We have put more flexibility into powertrain: a modern cylinder head line can work on several different heads using pallets and machining centres. Powertrain assembly is more automated than a decade ago, but
I believe it has reached its peak of automation. On engine testing: “We did only sample hot test in past, now when we start production of an engine, we do 100% hot testing, then we slowly go to sample testing as we ramp up. As for cold testing: I think it is necessary to do 100% on full production.”
Hybrid and electric vehicles are making the news now, where turbochargers and direct injection were the ‘sexy’ technologies 10 years ago.
Toyota have been the biggest marketers of hybrid technology and this has influenced Didier Leroy’s outlook in this area: “For me, the biggest advances in powertrain have been the development of hybrid technology with the strong leadership of Toyota.”
He differs from many on testing: “On hot and cold testing, at Toyota both are applied, but we always give priority to hot test, which is still better than cold engine test.”
Nitin Rajurkar cites laser welding of components as an important advance for Tata: “Laser welding of gears onto shafts has been one of the big advances, it has enabled us to change the design of powertrain assemblies to save metal and thus cost, plus we now have on-line in-process checking, so any problem gets highlighted and dealt with before it goes further down the line.” On testing he is in tune with most modern powertrain engineers: “We have moved to cold testing on all engines; with the new measuring equipment we have, we can reduce hot testing to selected sample hot tests, we now hot test one out of every 20. In the past we hot tested every engine.”
The traditional bugbear of any plant, the paint process has probably benefited from technology developments more than any other in manufacturing. Cartridge systems, bell systems, electrostatic deposition and new materials have all helped to improve vehicle painting times, although it remains a significant bottleneck in the total vehicle making line.
Plant planners and managers alike have also been keen to clean up the process’ ‘dirty’ image, as Ford’s Joseph Hinrichs pointed out: “Paint shops at FMC have been evolving into low cost, high-quality producers that are lean, flexible, fast-to-market and leaders in environmental stewardship.
This has all been accomplished by implementing lean paint shop processes, improved automation technologies, and breakthough paint material formulations. Our paint shops are producing environmental-friendly results by lowering emissions of both VOCs and CO2, improving energyefficiency, and delivering enhanced water conservation. At the same time we have better, more uniform paint quality; bolder, brighter colors; improved chip- and scratch-resistant coatings; and the most durable coating systems in the industry.”
At GM, paint bells and robots have been key to saving space and reducing air flow, leading to lower energy consumption, Gary Cowger: also allows for a reduced width of the spray booth, reducing the volume of air required to control paint overspray, which reduces our ongoing booth utility costs and CO2 footprint as well.
One area where automation has probably peaked in most developed plants is trim and final assembly– real concerns here are quality maintenance, ergonomics, speed, and balancing customization of the product with ease of assembly.
Outsourcing and modularization were common catchphrases of the 1990s, but things have changed since then. Putting pressure onto the supply base to assemble larger and yet larger sections of the vehicle also forced suppliers to take much of the cost burden related to innovation upon themselves, simply to remain competitive. This worked well during boom times; indeed it seemed that suppliers were falling over themselves trying to up their R&D budgets with long-term supply contracts in their sights. In recent years, with the economic downturn causing many smaller (and some larger) suppliers to fold or at least heavily rationalize, OEMs have taken back a lot of responsibility. This has made trim and final more important than ever for carmakers.
While supplier parks are still being built alongside almost every plant in the world, contracts are shorter and more demanding and the enormous investment in the new hybrid and electric powertrain technologies is putting a great strain on many suppliers.
Where trim and final has made great advances though, is in ergonomics and the man-machine interface. Gary Cowger: “Within the General Assembly (GA) trim operations, technology has been implemented with more of a focus on ergonomics and ways to help the production operator. A few examples include the use of height-adjustable skillets to optimize the assembly height of the vehicle for the operator to conduct his operations, and the use of robotics to assist in the loading of difficult or heavy components, e.g. windshield glass or hybrid battery assemblies.
Also, the application of simple, lowcost Automated Guided Cart (AGC) technology allows for a lean, more efficient material delivery and transfer system to transport material to the production lines.”
From vehicle driving control systems to massage seats, even lower midsegment vehicles have increasingly complex electronic architectures, with many more systems that can go wrong – even before the car is completed. Testing and verifying these is a major part of today’s trim and final process. Joseph Hinrichs: “We verify all electronic module functionality, as well as connection and functionality of all electrical content. This is done through a combination of on-board and off-board diagnostic testing of electronic modules and physical current measurement of electrical device function.”
On automation levels in trim and final, Jaguar Land Rover’s Michael Straughan is convinced that the balance between manual and automated operations has been found:
“I think most carmakers would agree that in trim and final assembly, we have probably reached the optimum automation level and of course, we are always more reliant on the person on the line in this area.”
One does not have to look far to see the effects of the downturn in labour numbers and contracts; layoffs, plant closures, cutting back on pensions and benefits have all been forced upon carmakers and their employees. Some OEMs have reacted earlier than others, but all have had to share the pain with their workforces – and the unions that represent them.
Gary Cowger: “Ten years ago, in 1998, GM went through a significant event in the US with a major labor disruption at the Flint Metal Fab Plant that disrupted production throughout the corporation and cost GM millions in sales and lost market share. It also resulted in a loss of public image to customers and to the world at large. Things had to change – for both management and union.
“As a result of this event, the manufacturing and labor relations organizations were merged and a new era began with respect to the relationship between the union and management at GM. Transplants were invading the US, but we were still internally focused and adversarial in our relationship with the UAW in 1998.
“Now, ten years later, we are focused on our external competition and closing the competitive gap – across the board (operationally, and in labor costs).”
Ford went through a period of enthusiastic acquisition in the 1990s, it had $20 billion dollars in a ‘war chest’ and bought up several brands, while purchasing large chunks of shares in others. It has recently had to divest some of these, but has acted ahead of some of its competitors in terms of the management of its global workforce.
Training is key to Joseph Hinrichs’ labour strategies: “Training demands have escalated significantly. It is now typical for an hourly operator to be responsible for a CNC machining cell, including CMM checks, tool changes and preventative maintenance activities. The skilled trades are now more of a knowledge/information technology trade, with vastly reduced mechanical requirements.”
Didier Leroy adds that Toyota continues to nurture its employees and develop their skills: “Many companies focused on labour cost for cost reduction.....but labour cost is not everything!
“Of course we improve productivity, but with the support of our members.
Our members are our best asset, and we invest a lot in their development, improving skills, competencies and motivation.”
As we have noted, the past decade has possibly seen more change than the previous 90 years of mass production in automotive and the industry is now at a crossroads of change. New vehicles, powertrains, looking for lighter weight, greater efficiency and lower emissions while satisfying an increasingly sophisticated consumer who is not able to pay the premium prices of the past.
Who wouldn’t want a job in automotive? Or as Ford’s Joseph Hinrichs puts it: “Yes, the solutions of the future will have to draw on nontraditional skills and knowledge. This is an industry going through more change globally than we've seen in quite some time. It's a wild ride, but one that can and should be enjoyed.”