While the industrial manufacturing landscape continues to digitalise and more companies map out routes to a more connected manufacturing environment, the progress in this area is uneven, to say the least. There are companies that are still weighing the advantages of an MES system, while others have completed the transition into a Smart Factory.
The International Automotive Components Group facility at Halewood, UK, belongs to the latter group. As a Tier 1 supplier to the automotive industry, IAC was being confronted by trends such as personalisation, function integration and connectivity.
"There is a lot going on in this area," IAC Europe President Jonas Nilsson said at a July press meeting that included an eye-opening tour of the plant. Features such as Smart Logistics, cobots and the automated guided vehicles that are used to produce cockpits for different vehicles create a relatively quiet production hall, where employees use ergonomically placed computer screens at each of the stations on what the company describes as an extremely flexible, just-in-time assembly line.
"Life cycles are shorter, launches take place far more often," Nilsson said. "Production needs to be efficient and sustainable. Also in the future, mobility will look much different from today. We don't know exactly how, but as a premium supplier of interior solutions, we need to be flexible and prepare for a future in which, for example, vehicles will be fully automated. The cockpits of self-driving cars will have to meet other kinds of demands than in conventional cars."
Damian Carter, vice president operations at IAC Group, explained that this was the company's pilot plant for Manufacturing 4.0.
"We started during the 2017 Christmas break," he said. "Everything was cleared out of the plant, and we effectively built a new factory."
This included an internet of things infrastructure, making full connectivity possible. IAC has installed performance management software that gives plant managers real-time visibility, allowing them to monitor machine utilisation and work progress, while enabling them to make immediate adjustments.
"The system collects performance information from every IAC machine, including the injection moulding machines, and monitors everything. The machines are all connected to a single database, so I can check on downtime, output anywhere via the app on my phone," Carter said.
Meanwhile, data analytics make it possible for the company to experiment with future planning and manufacturing improvements, including, for example, predictive maintenance.
In the new hall, the company has done away with the former traditional fixed carousel system and replaced this with fully automated logistics technology — 42 AGVs, or automated guided vehicles — to build the parts.
"IAC Halewood is the first plant to use AGVs to build cockpits," Carter said. The company was recently awarded a new contract, about which no details were disclosed, which influenced the decision to implement the AGVs.
"They allow us to step up to the next level in efficiency," he added.
Reconfiguring the line is simple: The AGVs navigate around the factory by following a magnetic strip which is taped to the floor. By rerouting the tape, the preset path of the AGV can be adjusted according to, for example, ordering information or parts delivery.
"The AGVs enable workers to assemble up to 4 million cockpit variants on a single production line, making true mass customisation possible," said IAC Halewood plant manager Trevor Warner. With vehicles increasingly becoming fashion items, it is essential to be able to respond flexibly and rapidly to personalised demands, he pointed out. "Our customers were also looking towards the integration of systems. We were being asked, 'How are you upgrading; how can you feed into our line?' So our customers also guided us into the AGV line."
At the end of the line, collaborative robots have been equipped with cameras to carry out visual checks of the cockpit quality, which has improved efficiency, quality and repeatability.
"However, safety and cost were also important considerations when choosing to deploy the cobots," said Carter.
According to IAC, the pilot plant at Halewood is just the first step.
"Now that the physical rollout of the shop floor management software is in the process of being finalised, we can now start to work with the data — the huge amount of data — that has become available," Carter explained. Preventative and predictive maintenance, better supply chain forecasting, advanced planning and scheduling, the optimisation of operations to make production processes more sustainable — data mining can bring all these within reach.
IAC plans to roll out Smart Factory integration to all its European manufacturing operations — "the next one is our Prestice plant, in the Czech Republic," Carter said — to improve manual work, increase flexibility, minimise scrap, eradicate defects, enhance process automation and reduce single-use equipment.
Cobots will play a major role in the transition. Currently, the company has a total of 20 projects under definition or implementation, selected on the basis of the scope for cost reduction and quality improvement.
Another factor driving the increasing adoption of automated solutions is the labor situation, and not just in the United Kingdom.
"In Central and Eastern Europe, there is a chronic and serious shortage of people with the skills we are looking for," said Carter.
Most important, however, is the realisation that the Smart Factory is more than a simple matter of the implementation of more automation. For IAC, the agility and flexibility of the Manufacturing 4.0 environment is enabling the company to adapt to the changing needs of its customers and suppliers, function efficiently and effectively and to drive value by successfully differentiating itself as a premium player in the automotive interiors market.