The Times They Are A-Changin', Part 1

6 Sep, 2006 By: Jeffrey Rowe

Global competition, new consumer habits and evolving technology keep the automotive manufacturing industry on its toes

More than 40 years ago, Bob Dylan wrote “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” a compelling song that describes the changes in the social and political mores of the era. At that time, the United States’ industrial sector was still very strong, and it continued to chug along as it had for several decades.

Since then, however, times have been a-changin’ tremendously for the manufacturing sector in this country. Because of these changes, especially in regard to global competition increasing over the past several years, a new era seems to be emerging that may again make the United States a world leader.

I’m currently in the Detroit area, and will be here for the next several weeks. Being from Motor City originally, I closely follow the evolution of the automotive industry and its attempts to remain competitive with the rest of the world -- a tough job that keeps getting tougher. In the next couple of newsletters, I’ll discuss the areas in automotive manufacturing that seem the most likely to change, including:

  • More pervasive use of software that designs digital manufacturing plants

  • Manufacturing plants that are more productive and flexible, but physically smaller

  • The reduced number of workstations required in manufacturing plants

  • The increasing and more widespread use of robots

  • More intelligent assembly tools and components

  • The factory worker of tomorrow

Digital Manufacturing Software

Because traditional production costs were so enormous, the automotive industry (along with aerospace) was a pioneer in adopting and embracing digital manufacturing software. This highly specialized software is used, at least to some degree, by all automotive manufacturers to design, visualize and test assembly lines before committing to and installing any equipment on a factory floor. In other words, it’s analogous to digitally prototyping a manufacturing facility.

Although the primary purpose of the software is to expedite the design process for assembly lines in manufacturing plants, it’s also used just as much to detect potential production problems, glitches and bottlenecks before a physical assembly line is constructed. Like product design and engineering, data reuse can also be employed for digitally created manufacturing facilities that cuts time and cost.

There are a number of niche players that develop digital manufacturing software, but the market is currently dominated by two products: Delmia from Dassault Systemes and Tecnomatix from UGS. The fact that there are only two major players in the market has probably contributed to the slow acceptance to date, but this should change dramatically if and when more vendors enter the fray with more of a presence and offering more options. However, unlike universally implemented MCAD software, due to its cost, complexity, lack of training and ROI uncertainty, the use of digital manufacturing is today confined largely to the OEMs and some Tier 1 suppliers, but this will change.

Overall, the supply chain has been slow to adopt software, although that will change. In fact, market research firm CIMdata predicts that the market for digital manufacturing software will increase to $1 billion in 2009, from a $400 million market in 2005.

Manufacturing Gets More Flexible

The automotive industry’s lack of flexibility on assembly lines has long been a problem. Rigid, dedicated production lines carry excessive overhead and threaten layoffs if sales of particular vehicles produced on them drop off. Amazingly, more than 50% of North American assembly lines are still dedicated to producing a single vehicle model.

On the other hand, flexible production lines can handle multiple vehicles and can sustain a high capacity of products, so companies can balance manufacturing output. I’ve read predictions from inside automotive sources that state that within a decade, 90% or more of vehicles with unibody construction will be produced on flexible assembly lines, because their appeal and sales tend to be more global.

The days of building 500,000 or even 200,000 of a particular vehicle on a dedicated assembly line are over. Flexible manufacturing will almost certainly experience universal acceptance as a competitive necessity.

Decreasing Manufacturing Workstations

Flexibility is one way to measure productivity and efficiency, but another good metric is the number of assembly points, or workstations, that are required to construct a product on the factory floor. Today, the most efficient assembly plants have an average of 140 workstations. Harbour Consulting, which publishes a survey that measures the efficiency of North American assembly plants, says that in the future, the most productive automotive plants could have as few as 100 assembly line workstations. Fewer assembly points will be made possible by increased human efficiencies, supplier pre-assembly, sequencing consolidation and assembly task consolidation. In other words, the simpler the processes become, the better. While the number of workstations will continue to drop for all manufacturers, just how low the number will go is dependent on a manufacturer’s processes and the relative complexity of the vehicle being produced.

Looking Forward

So, with all that is currently going on and likely to happen in the future in manufacturing, the times they are a-changin’ -- definitely. Next time, we’ll continue the discussion on how manufacturing is changing with regard to human workers and robots. I’ll be attending the International Manufacturing Technology Show conference and exhibition this week and will report back on the significant things I see and hear in an upcoming installment.

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