Stepping into place for the first time on the moving assembly line at Henry Ford's Model T factory probably didn't give factory workers shivers of momentous awe in 1913. It probably just felt like coming into work. But momentous awe would not have been amiss; after all, Ford's process revolutionized manufacturing in almost every industrial sector, and car manufacturers in particular have never looked back.
The assembly line required less-skilled workers, while also making them vastly more productive. Cars were cheaper and faster to make, pushing their price tags down into a range more consumers could muster. Uniformed production was another big part of the new process. Previously, Ford's factory had offered cars customized according to individual consumer's wishes -- not anymore. Standardization meant even greater efficiency and more time saved. All in all, Ford's innovative revamp brought production time down to a mere 93 minutes per car [source: Haven]. Cars sped out of showrooms at an astounding pace, and the company seemed unstoppable.
Fast-forward to 2009, and overall the situation is still looking tolerable for Ford Motor Company. Sure, the economy has been beating up on the Big Three without mercy for the past several years now, but Ford is weathering the storm most successfully. Unlike his counterparts at Chrysler and General Motors, Ford president and CEO Alan Mulally (who took the helm in 2006) turned down federal aid. He's now working diligently to stabilize the company, and forecasts a return to profitability by 2011 [source: Taylor]
Mulally has also pushed for efforts to streamline production and bring the company back to its core products, while pressing for cars that are smaller and more energy-efficient. Reminiscent of Henry Ford's drive for perfection, Mulally has Ford Motor Company pointed down the path to recovery. In this article we'll take a closer look at how car companies around the world also try to manufacture cars as cheaply and efficiently as possible, from prototyping all the way to the end of the production line.
Auto manufacturers have increased speed and productivity through the use of rapid prototyping. It's a process that typically involves designing a potential new vehicle part with special computer software and using those specs to create a physical model with a machine such as a 3-D printer.
If you're unfamiliar with the process of building a prototype, the inherent benefits of this technique might not be readily apparent, but it is a huge timesaver compared to more archaic methods. Instead of taking weeks to design and construct a prospective part, it takes just hours or days. That means product testing is similarly sped up and designers can tell if they have a dud without wasting tons of time and money. Design flaws are indentified quickly and, probably most important, before they hit the production line.
This technology was assimilated rapidly into auto manufacturing because as anyone who's ever looked under the hood of a vehicle knows for certain: Cars contain an awful lot of parts.
Flexible Production Lines
One advantage some automobile manufacturers have over their competition is the ability to switch a factory from the production of one model to another. Many auto factories are designed to produce variations on only one type of vehicle, so if that particular vehicle slips from public popularity, it leaves lots of people in the lurch.
This factor has been highlighted during the past several years as consumer fondness for gas-gorging giants has faltered and many people are opting for smaller, more fuel-efficient cars instead. Companies like Honda swapped some factories over from producing less-popular vehicles like trucks and SUVs to more preferred models. But companies such as Ford and General Motors didn't have it quite so easy -- many of their factories weren't flexible enough to make the tradeoff so they've been forced to shut down some assembly lines, while amping up production on others and still falling short on meeting demand.
Turning to Tech
Auto manufacturers are continuously upping the ante on technology available on assembly lines to improve both output and quality. Humans are still fundamental to the process of course -- they're better equipped to make snap decisions and handle more complex tasks -- but machines can aid by boosting safety, ergonomics and efficiency. In fact, typical automobile factories engage several hundred robots to help get the job done.
Manifestations of this automation technology come in many forms, including ones commonly known as cobots (derived from the term "collaborative robots"). Cobots are handy helpers that assist in a diverse assortment of tasks by working in tandem with human operators. Whether it's by lifting heavy parts or moving them around the factory floor, cobots can make everything run more smoothly.
Saving Money While Slashing Pollution
Not only are many auto manufacturers increasingly looking for ways to produce more environmentally friendly vehicles, they're also often gunning for new methods to make the plants themselves more satisfactory in terms of wasted energy and pollution output.
Take Toyota, for example. Its Takaoka plant can handle up to eight types of vehicles at a time and features shorter than normal assembly lines, which reduces CO2 emissions and energy expenditures. The robots on the line are smaller and faster than the older machines typical in other factories -- about 70 percent faster, which also revs up productivity [source: Manufacturer's Monthly]. The factory engages solar energy for power and is painted with a special photo-catalytic paint that's able to soak up pollutants.
Other Toyota plants around the world are also increasingly sporting eco-friendly features, like solar panel use, wastewater recycling capabilities, zero landfill contributions and recycling innovations galore. In May of 2008, the company hosted a large tree-planting event and Toyota employees and community volunteers planted approximately 50,000 trees. In August of the same year, Thailand recieved100,000 leafy new additions.
These sorts of steps not only help decrease a factory's environmental footprint, they also bring other benefits like savings on the bottom line.
If you're not Japanese or a card-carrying car manufacturer, chances are you might have missed hearing about kaizen. Is it a fancy new fuel cell? How about those jet packs we were promised? Neither -- disappointing, we know. It's actually a business philosophy that sets the foundation of the Japanese automakers' development process.
Although technically not a new development, kaizen is so tied in with technical trends in the world of auto manufacturing, it definitely deserves a mention. Kaizen rose to popularity following World War II, when many Japanese industries faced the struggle of having to rebuild their businesses from scratch. Commonly translated along the lines of "continuous improvement," kaizen involves a constant and steady search for ways to improve methods and increase standards.
And it's not just for managers either -- top to bottom, all employees must strive to identify problems and suggest solutions for fixing them. By doing so, not only is everyone more engaged in the process, they're also contributing to increased quality and productivity.
For loads more great auto info, buzz through the links on the next page.
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