Integrating an automotive production line is an engineering challenge almost as old as mass production, but the industry still faces new geographic and chronological challenges

For those in the know, an automated production system in full flow is a thing of great beauty, and no more so than in an automotive plant. Through the press shop, body-in-white, paint and final assembly, the intricate interactions between the various elements of a production line can have a mesmerising effect, as handling systems, tools, inspection technology and operators all work in harmony to feed the system.

The line, though, is only as strong as its weakest link, which means that when an OEM or a Tier supplier is considering adding a new line, there can’t be any area weaker than another. Achieving this is, in every sense, a task for a specialist, and whether it falls to an in-house team of integrators or a third-party company, it’s a challenge that has not become easier over recent years. Balanced with the advances in 3D modeling and the creation of look-beforeyou- leap virtual manufacturing environments, there are now rigid time-to-market requirements that demand production ramp-ups measured in days rather than months.

Then there is the added complication of component and vehicle production being taken out of the limited confines of Japan and the West. Over the last decade, global manufacturing has come to mean precisely that as China, Brazil, India and Pacific rim nations have come on stream. It’s a time of change for the industry, which means a time of change with regards to plant integration.

Purchasing and implementation

While the use of integrators is commonplace in the world’s traditional automotive production regions, the spread of manufacturing into developing markets has seen some companies reluctantly turn to more traditional methodologies in order to get their operations up and running, as the experiences of two Tier One suppliers (now both under Chinese ownership) serve to demonstrate.

Where a primary equipment supplier might be tasked with line integration in these otherwise new and unfamiliar markets, the manufacturers are electing to take more of that responsibility upon themselves.

BWI - adapting to circumstances

BWI Group has, under various names, been supplying brake and suspension components and assemblies to the automotive industry for almost a century. Its recent acquisition by Bejing West Industries has seen the company’s attention turn to the boom markets of Asia, with new component supply plants being built in China and India.

While the company wants to replicate the processes and methods it uses in North America and Europe, it has to dovetail that with the demands of operating in regions with different cultures and, perhaps more pertinently, a very different automotive heritage.

“The requirements are basically the same. In terms of putting our production lines and our assembly equipment within the walls of our new facilities, we primarily use the suppliers or the fabricators of our assembly equipment: it is they who are typically the people installing the equipment on the factory floor,” says Thomas Bramer, BWI Group Purchasing Director for global brake systems and Asia- Pacific suspension. “Our bill of process is the same, our bill of design is the same, but when we’re working in a developing country such as India or China, we certainly have to be more involved in the design, application and installation part of the process. The automotive industry in North America and Europe is highly developed. The suppliers know the assembly quality requirement that we’re looking for whereas in the Asia-Pacific region this is still a developing industry.

“Suppliers may not know the stringent quality requirements that we have, so we have to make sure that they’re following everything they’re committed to. Then, when they are installing that equipment on our factory floor, we want to make sure the quality and the performance is there for us. So, the basic bill of process is the same, but it takes more hands-on governance from us to make sure it happens the way it needs to happen.

“It’s a different matter when we talk about the construction of the plant as opposed to installation of the production line. This has been a big year for BWI Group. We’re opening three new facilities in the Asia–Pacific region. We have a second facility opening in Shanghai, a new suspension plant in the Fangshan District of Beijing and another plant in India. In two cases we’re dealing with a landlord and leasing the facility, in the third case we own the property and have decided to manage the build with our own resources. Where we’re dealing with a landlord, in one instance the landlord is managing the construction and plant fitting, in the other we’ve hired a third party to finish the construction and prepare the assembly facilities for our manufacturing footprint. That aspect of the operation is of course not so specialised as the assembly line itself.”

Nexteer - managing growth

Like BWI, another former Delphi-owned company, Nexteer, has had similar experiences exploring the new automotive world. Now owned by Pacific Century Motors, the steering and driveline systems supplier has, appropriately, a growing footprint in China, but also new plants in Brazil and India.

“The subject of what we will manage ourselves and what we will pass on to people outside is one which changes according to location,” says Ricardo Pastor, Nexteer’s Quality Director for electric power steering. “Naturally, when we deal with building a facility – literally the building itself – we will hire the local construction companies. We will not get involved with the construction, it’s just not our area. When it comes down to installing equipment into our facilities we will hire management from outside for the transportation into the factory and even making some of the hook-ups within the facility for electricity, water, compressed air and so on. It’s important to leverage those things so that you can focus on what’s really key from a process standpoint, from a technology standpoint and from a risk-management perspective around your product. The rest we leave to experts who do this every day. We see this happening with what we do in India, what we’ve done in Brazil, as well as in China.”

Nexteer’s footprint in India is being enlarged with the addition of a new manufacturing facility in Chakan, near Pune, Maharashtra state, while existing operations in Bangalore and Gurgaon are being expanded. The new, 75,000 sq. ft. Chakan facility will initially support Nexteer’s halfshaft, pump and steering gear business. Halfshafts (see opening image, opposite page) currently account for 75% of company business in India, although Nexteer anticipates more future growth in its electric power steering business, driven by new Indian emissions standards and the massive growth in the Indian car park over the next decade.

“Nexteer has a very strong manufacturing presence globally and this is because of our commitment to follow our customers,” continues Pastor. “For the most part our decisions of where to setup our manufacturing facilities around the world are primarily driven by our customers’ desire to have us in that location; they either have an existing presence or a planned presence to be in that country or that region. We tend to follow our customers to be in their backyard, there are exceptions but that’s the general direction.

“We’ve seen tremendous growth in new markets. My particular experience has been in China where we’ve set up three manufacturing facilities, including a joint venture, in the last four years. The focus on quality is extremely important to us as, as is the focus on being competitive. And frequently, to be competitive, you need to be in the country of supply and next to your customer.”

Having been with Nexteer for almost 30 years, Pastor has taken on a variety of roles, which included development of a virtual manufacturing operation in South Korea. Before taking over his current role, Pastor was a manufacturing strategic planner in the United States and as such, he is well aware that while an OE customer building a world product will demand an identical part be shipped to every assembly location, the story behind producing that part will be different from location to location.

“All of this, the idea of new locations, new facilities, new joint-ventures, new people, it typically carries with it a high risk for any organisation. Having good tools is the way to properly manage that risk. That means starting from a solid base which, for us, is what we call the bill of design and bill of process. What that means in real teams is following a standard template for design and manufacturing. What’s important is that we have a product and a process that’s very transportable around the world. Essentially, we have the recipe developed and we go to a distant location and then implement what we’ve done somewhere else – in a similar fashion, though not necessarily in an identical fashion. This is not only from the design point of view, but also with regard to the process.

“In order for this to work, we need to have very effective programme management. Attention to detail is absolutely key, especially in countries where the native language and cultures are different to your own; it’s extremely important that you take the time to look at the detail. One of the things that we see very often, as an added complexity, is the fact that many of our new programme launches around the world are global programmes. This means that vehicle manufacturers, our target customers, are building the same vehicle at multiple locations around the world and they want to have a common supplier that follows them around the world and they expect us to do that in the same way at all of those locations.”

Nexteer’s plant integration philosophy in developing regions has been to oversee its own operations, splitting its purchasing between local supply and import according to the complexity of the equipment under consideration.

“Typically we will choose to buy local equipment from local manufacturers for what could be called the low-tech operations,” says Pastor. “I’d loosely term this commodity equipment, including washers, tumblers, items which are commonly available in the region in where we’re setting up shop. We would still require those to be built to a common specification and customised as required, but we would leave that task in the hands of the equipment manufacturer in the region. Further, we would expect their people to support us in installing the equipment in our plants, and also in terms of providing training to our staff, from team leaders down to operations and our plant engineers.

“That’s the case for commodity and general low-tech equipment. When it comes to very specialised pieces of equipment and the processes that we consider core to our manufacturing lines, we have a limited group of international equipment suppliers who we consider our supplier base. We go to the same people over and over again and inevitably we develop strong partnerships. With this complex equipment – maybe we’re talking about induction hardeners, grinders, CNC centres – those will typically be custom-built to our specifications, which we have developed and optimised to suit our standard bill of process.

“Our preference is to maintain oversight of the operation ourselves. Equipment manufacturers will take the product through a qualification in their shop, where we will send out manufacturing engineers and advanced quality engineers to review and certify that the equipment is ready to be transported to its final location. And regardless of that final location, the development of the equipment and the lines can really be anywhere in the world. We work with suppliers in Spain, Germany, Japan, North America - we even have suppliers in Australia.

“We would leverage them to deliver the equipment to our facility, help up with the installation, do the training and debugging and we’ll typically have them on site until we’re comfortable that we can run the equipment in the location.

This essentially is our chosen path to plant integration, we leverage our supplier base - from an equipment point of view - to get us going around the world. And because we have strategic partners they’re all used to this and it’s just the way we do business and the way they do business with us.”