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Smart factories must be flexible, connected and secure

There’s no shortage of advanced technologies at the disposal of automakers in their efforts to manufacture passenger cars and trucks in a safer, more cost-effective and efficient manner—collaborative robots, virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, big data analytics and additive manufacturing, to name a few. But companies should be mindful of how and when to implement such technologies, particularly in existing plants, according to Dan Grieshaber, General Motors’ Global Director of Manufacturing Engineering Integration.

“This is not about technology for technology’s sake,” he said at the 2018 CAR Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City, Mich. “It’s about solving specific business problems or changing our environment such that we can solve the problems that we anticipate tomorrow.”

This involves integrating new technology with existing equipment. “We simply cannot afford to recapitalize our entire business and just bulldoze everything and start over.”

Plant floor safety is a major focus area for technology deployment, Grieshaber stressed. Wearables such as exo-skeletons or robo-gloves can help to reduce the stress and strain workers experience when performing certain tasks. Collaborative robots that assist the operator and make him/her more productive are “game-changers,” he said. “The opportunities [for cobots] are really boundless, only limited by your imagination.”

Using 3D printing to produce manufacturing tools and aids on-site is another area worth exploring, he said. For example, a shock tower lead-in helps guide the shock into the front tower for alignment, and a push pin ergonomic-assist tool can help relieve the effort by securing the push pins.

“These are things we can make in the plant, on the fly, to solve immediate business problems as opposed to having to contract these things out,” he said. “And they’re pennies to produce because they don’t need to be made out of exotic materials.”

(Read more about GM's use of robo-gloves and 3D printing at

What it boils down to is there is not one single silver bullet to solve all the problems, Grieshaber said to conclude his thoughts. “I think sometimes we can fall into the trap of, ‘What’s that next miracle drug that’s going to help transform our business?’ It’s really going to be, in my view, a combination of a lot of things, including integrating what we already do today.”

Preparing for disruption

“It’s fair to say that the plunge into automation, connectivity, electrification will no doubt impact manufacturers—frankly, it already has,” said Mike Bafan, President, Toyota de Mexico, at the Management Briefing Seminars. He’s witnessed all sorts of changes and transitions in the industry through the years, “but none as rapidly and dynamic as the current disruption facing the industry.”

Toyota is investing $10 billion in its U.S. operations by 2022, to help prepare it for this transformation. The company’s focus is on achieving higher flexibility, acquiring more capability to produce multiple products on the same line, and reducing lead time in the entire enterprise, from design to production.

“The bottom line is manufacturing should facilitate what the customers want,” Bafan said.

To illustrate the point that Toyota is indeed ready to adjust on the fly to meet customer demands, Bafan shared the story of how its new Guanajuato plant in central Mexico will now produce Tacoma pickups, when the initial plan was to produce Corolla passenger cars. About eight months into the process, Toyota’s board of directors decided to focus on building more trucks, sales of which are booming, and advised Bafan of this decision in August 2017.

“When I was asked by our CEO, ‘How is this going to change your whole plan now?’ I told him, ‘No impact.’ He was shocked,” Bafan said. “We worked hard to design a layout that could be used for manufacturing just about anything—tricycles, trucks, cars.”

Growing diversity in powertrain options such as hybrids, plug-ins and fuel cells will only accelerate the need for manufacturing flexibility.

“Ultimately, the consumer will decide which powertrain technology is right for their lifestyle, and we will continue to provide a portfolio of options,” Bafan said. “As consumer adoption rates for these advanced technologies increase, we will be prepared to meet the demand. And that’s the part of the conversation where manufacturing needs to have a seat at the table—we can’t exclude manufacturing.”

Data drives decisions

“You really can’t have a smart factory if you’re not connected and you’re not secure,” said Jason Dietrich, Senior Vice President, Global Connected Operations Sales, PTC, during a Smart Factory session at MBS.

Connected & Secure is the first of five stages of maturity on the path to realizing a smart factory, according to PTC. Adding real-time access, machine learning, cobots and next-generation HMI (human-machine interfaces) ultimately lead to the final stage: Networked & Agile.

“It truly is the extended supply chain,” Dietrich said of the final stage. “Data flows from factory to factory. You can compare factories against each other, you have integrated systems, and ultimately you’re thinking of ways to use lean and six sigma principles to get more value out of your existing assets.”

The security aspect is a major component of smart factories and an ongoing challenge for many automakers.

“We have a huge emphasis on cybersecurity throughout our organization. Our security guys don’t like me talking about this, but I don’t think this is unique to Ford,” said Tim Geiger, Principle Architect for Manufacturing, Ford Motor Co. “Our biggest exposure area today that we’re still addressing is cybersecurity in manufacturing. There is a lot of exposure there. If anyone doesn’t think that’s the case, I would take a much harder look at your security organization.”

Data is a core principle in driving the factory of the future as well as cybersecurity activities, according to Dan Totten, consulting architect for big data & analytics at Ford Motor Co. More than 600 data analysts at Ford are working to decipher the vast amounts of data collected from the manufacturing environment and from vehicles themselves.

“I can’t do AI [artificial intelligence], I can’t do ML [machine learning], I can’t do a number of things unless I have the data,” Totten said. “The data is telling us stories now [and] actually driving some of our technological solutions to help us deliver on AI, ML and all the different elements within smart manufacturing, as well as at the plant floor and in the vehicle.”

Some of the team’s early successes stem from collecting data off the vehicle, Totten said. “Those real-time demands are factoring into, from a manufacturing standpoint, ‘How do I take advantage of real-time data to be able to drive insights and analytics?’”

Data scientists can play a key role in security by partnering with the cybersecurity team.

“Through monitoring data, you’re able to set a baseline and start to get anomaly detection, so you can see where you’re out of scope,” Totten said. “From a data perspective, being able to monitor it, measure it, understand where you might have an anomaly, and then be able to react to that.”

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