Todd Montpas, automotive and tyre market development manager at Rockwell Automation, discusses how automotive plants can unlock greater productivity and new efficiencies

Global auto sales are expected to exceed 85m vehicles in 2014, according to IHS Automotive. If so, this will be the fifth straight year of record sales – a clear sign that the global recession is now behind the auto industry.

The availability of more vehicle models and options is helping to bolster sales in the mature markets. According to the Credit Week report “The Global Auto Industry Shifts its Focus to Overseas and Emerging Markets,” these markets are driving unprecedented growth in the industry, accounting for more than half of the global light-vehicle sales in 2010, which was a first in the industry’s history.

The auto industry’s turnaround has improved the business of auto manufacturers around the world and this sales boom is putting renewed pressure on manufacturing plants to produce more vehicles in more variations, with downtime and disruptions kept to an absolute minimum.

In the high-velocity world of auto manufacturing, seconds matter. Finding efficiencies which take even seconds off a manufacturing process can ultimately lead to an additional one or two vehicles being produced each day. With high production quotas and critical profits attached to each vehicle, this seemingly small improvement in daily numbers can add up in the long run to generate significant additional annual revenue.

Managers seeking to optimise their operations and equipment are feeling the pressure, with more challenges than ever on the plant floor. Production has been consolidated to the point where most auto plants now produce several vehicle makes and models. In addition, vehicle refreshes are happening much more frequently to meet continually changing customer demands.

This is all driving greater complexity in the plant and is requiring more frequent changeovers. Production must be unyielding and plant managers are tasked with getting more out of their facilities than ever before.

By focusing on four key areas for optimisation on the plant floor, these challenges can be addressed to drive continual improvements in productivity and uptime.

Whether launching a new plant or adding a new vehicle on an existing line, it is important not to overlook worker preparedness. Auto makers too often focus on the mechanical, electrical and control issues involved in a vehicle launch, which means that worker-induced downtime issues are frequently left unchecked.

With this in mind, worker preparedness should be addressed well before launch. Workers should be empowered with all the knowledge sets they will need regarding machines, tools, procedures and processes. For a new facility launch, workers must be set baseline skills goals. For a new vehicle launch on an existing line, an assessment should be conducted to see where skills stand today, and a training programme implemented that works toward the objective.

The workforce also should be equipped with the latest technologies that can help to maximise productivity. When downtime events occur, for example, plants notify workers through some form of alarm system. In most cases, lights flash and bells ring. Maintenance workers are sometimes paged or screens may display messages. But what is the quality of the information that is being relayed to workers? Do they immediately know what they need to do? Or are they being left to figure it out on their own?

Delivering detailed diagnostic information to the right people that is role- and location-based can significantly help to reduce meantime to repair. Instead of taking the time to drive to the machine, diagnose the problem, and determine if the right spare parts are in stock, all of this information can be immediately delivered to workers when an event occurs so that they can take faster corrective action.

Such information is becoming easier to communicate as display boards in the plant become more advanced, with high-definition graphics and touch-screen capabilities. The information can also be directly sent to workers’ tablets or smartphones using mobile technology. An electrician, for example, may receive the following information in a downtime event:

• The machine location
• The specific error(s)
• What tools/parts are needed
• Where those tools/parts are located.

It is also important to have tools in place to manage part and software obsolescence. For instance, if a line goes down and a spare part is needed, is the spare part in the crib still the right one for the machine? Or if an I/O module is plugged in, do you know it will work because the software has been revised and is therefore compatible with the system? Proactively managing for this upfront will help to prevent it from becoming an issue during a downtime event.

On-site support services can help with start-ups, line commissioning, preventive maintenance and more. In many cases, support technicians and service providers no longer even need to be present 24/7. Just as an organisation’s IT staff can monitor systems across multiple sites from a central location, support service providers can remotely monitor plant systems and machines around the clock from an off-site location, safely and securely. Remote support personnel can:

• Notify you when parts or components are reaching the end of their life cycle to stay ahead of downtime events
• Direct your local resources to an alarmed event 
• Remotely connect to a machine to take corrective action themselves

The very nature of modern auto manufacturing is driving a tremendous amount of complexity into production processes. It begins on the plant floor, where a flexible, demand-driven manufacturing model means that the production schedule varies not only day by day but minute by minute. On the business side, you're striving to gather data from dozens – if not hundreds – of systems, while also interpreting, sharing and reporting it across multiple levels. You have the daunting challenge of trying to unify these disparate processes and data to build a more cohesive and efficient operation.

On the plant floor, one solution is to incorporate model predictive control (MPC) technology. This technology can compare current and predicted operational data against desired results to provide new control targets, which helps to reduce process variability and inefficiencies while also improving consistency and part quality.

A paintshop serves as a good example. Some plants keep paintshops running continuously – even between shifts and over the weekend – to ensure that the ovens are always at the right temperature. But MPC technology can link the paint schedule to  machines’ operations, generating energy savings. The technology can also control the paint process to ensure a consistently high-quality finish.

Similarly, workers can spend an inordinate amount of time gathering, assessing and presenting data from their business systems. There are also problems of inconsistent data between teams and an over-reliance on manual handling of the data, which can lead to human errors, such as the wrong parts being ordered. Automating these systems as part of a manufacturing intelligence strategy can help to automate reporting and present production data, KPIs and other critical analytics in easy-to-understand dashboards.

This data can also be shared through a scalable and flexible manufacturing execution system (MES), so that plant-floor production systems can be integrated with the enterprise resource planning system to optimise manufacturing across multiple facilities. Achieving a truly connected enterprise that can get data securely to and from machines and people – at every level, in any location and in the right context – is vital.

This greater enterprise-wide visibility can deliver information-based decision-making to help:

• Manage the scheduling and workload balance on flexible manufacturing lines
• More quickly respond to supplier disruptions or changes in customer demands
• Seamlessly incorporate changes in your manufacturing operations based on quality feedback.

Equipment is one of the largest capital investments in a plant and also one of the biggest opportunities for continuous improvement throughout the manufacturing operations life cycle. During the design phase, it is necessary to consider how the equipment will support flexible manufacturing – and when in full production, identify opportunities for improvements.

There are several low-risk improvements that can be made over the life cycle of the equipment to be more efficient and help speed up overall operations. Equipment improvements can be as simple as component migration to take advantage of features and functions at the right level of the architecture to deliver better performance. It is also possible to apply a systematic, staged migration approach, allowing the upgrade of equipment over time and thereby reducing your upfront investment and ultimately achieving a better ROI.

It is also important that to be proactive in managing product obsolescence that could result in downtime and lost productivity. This includes pinpointing any obsolescence risks and planning ahead to ensure access to parts, particularly those that may be hard to find.

Embedded diagnostics can help to reduce unexpected machine downtime and lower the mean time to repair. Today's machines often provide little detail as to what is wrong or what specifically needs to be repaired. Advanced diagnostics technology is changing this situation, so that workers can diagnose problems faster and know exactly what to repair. Ideally, this technology is used for predictive diagnostics to identify a potential problem before it becomes a downtime event. This allows personnel to rectify issues during planned maintenance downtime.

Increased machine data and advance diagnostics empower personnel with greater visibility into plant-floor equipment, providing them with accurate and timely data on current machine performance. This allows them to make more informed decisions on asset utilisation and can help identify production barriers to improve OEE.

Safety is intrinsic to a plant's workforce, processes and equipment. However, it should not be viewed as a single, separate element within each of these different components, but viewed holistically across the entire operation.

Most plant operators associate safety with downtime, but recent research says otherwise. Best-in-class manufacturers (defined as the top 20% of aggregate performance scorers) have been able to achieve higher OEE, less unscheduled downtime, and significantly lower injury rates than average performers using a common set of best practices that fall into three categories:

• Culture (behavioural)
• Compliance (procedural)
• Capital (technical).

From a capital standpoint, too many auto plants today are forced to shut down their machines for safety reasons when they have a problem on the line. But new technologies allow a machine to run at a designated safe speed even when the safety door is open. Similarly, manufacturers are increasingly using integrated safety controllers which allow safety and control systems to work in concert with each other, improving machine diagnostics and reducing downtime.

To assist manufacturers in understanding their current safety programmes and how they can be optimised, Rockwell Automation created the proprietary Safety Maturity Index assessment tool.

The unyielding journey ahead
Automotive plants will continue to face growing pressures from both external and internal sources. Increased government regulations and changing consumer demands will drive greater complexity into vehicles and the manufacturing process. Yet even amid these pressures, you will continue to be expected to minimise production costs and maintain profitability with a more efficient operation.

The key to managing these challenges is a devotion to continuous improvement – in your people, processes and equipment – while ensuring safety is addressed across the entirety of your operations to protect your people, your equipment and your uptime.