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Ford demos latest digital tools at flagship transmission plant

Leveraging expansive networking and traceability, Ford has transformed its manufacturing spaces with data wellsprings that drive quality and productivity.

Ford recently provided media with a look at some of its latest digital manufacturing tools, opening up the floor at one of the world’s largest transmission plants to showcase the quality- and productivity-driven initiative. The tour of Ford’s Livonia Transmission Plant (LTP) was part of a Detroit-area Manufacturing in America conference hosted by Siemens. Though showcasing the latest tools in use today, Ford stressed that this was a journey that began in earnest over a decade ago and is only just beginning to be leveraged.

The digital systems Ford is employing permit a more efficient path between its computer aided engineering (CAE), the creation of production/supply systems and the assembly process itself, improving quality by validating metrics in real time and gathering a swarm of data for analysis. Exceptional granularity in its component traceability provides a wealth of on-site data to improve quality, but leveraging such data in the cloud can also improve vehicle-specific characteristics at distant, final-assembly locations.

"What we showed off here today was the level of technology that we're deploying in our engineering factory and in our physical factory, with the idea that eventually those two areas will merge,” said Mike Bastian, Ford digital systems integration manager for powertrain manufacturing. “We've done that based off of high degrees of standardization and integration to enable data analytics, and going forward, have set the future up for artificial intelligence.”

Hardware + Network + Software = Function
According to Bastian, the digital transformation of Ford’s production accelerated in earnest in 2008, with the adoption of global control standards, followed by locking down its network architecture in 2009 and the massive deployment of ethernet to the plant floor. The Ford Automation Software Template (FAST) was begun in 2010, a standardization targeting traceability and configurability at the assembly-tool level.

Today, Ford’s manufacturing controls specification is comprised of an 800-page sourcebook “ruled with an iron fist” Bastian said, and applied to both in-house and supplier systems. One element of the global specification includes virtual RFID (a system designed, owned and maintained by Ford’s software team) using camera-based monitoring to track millions of parts in real time. Another element has standardized Ford-patented condition monitoring on more than 4,000 CNC machines deployed in manufacturing facilities globally.

Ford’s current digital toolset of more than 40 programs assist in everything from throughput simulators that permit the plant itself to be right-sized, to in-plant 3D scanning that improves layout and dimensioning. VR tools recreate assembly sequences and assess dunnage locations, and 3D process simulations model everything from work-path reaches to finger clearances.

“Through our product lifecycle management [PLM] tools, the handoff of information between PD and manufacturing is a lot more seamless today than it used to be,” Bastian explained. “As PD is going through and releasing design updates, they come to us instantaneously and we can quickly determine whether or not a design change is going to impact a manufacturing system we're in the process of building. We can go back to PD and say, ‘Hey, if you move that a few millimeters to the left, you're not going to impact my machine at all..’, and then your decision is investment-neutral.”

Flagship digital manufacturing space
The LTP facility features over 2 million ft2 of manufacturing space, employs 2,500 people and produced over 1.5 million 6-, 8- and 10-speed automatic transmissions last year with that production figure expected to climb 25% in 2019. The production line for the 10R transmission will see 19 different variants being produced each day for products such as the Ranger, F-150, Mustang and Explorer.

Over 900 cameras on the 10R and 8F palletized, asynchronous assembly lines capture more than 3,000 features during production. This generates a rich “birth history” of each transmission accessed via its unique 2D matrix identifier, (think QR code) linking to data about each part and subsystem, each tool used and that tool’s condition and performance when applied to that specific component.

“In the past, when you put a vision system out there, it was hit and miss as to whether it was going to work, and plants sometimes shut them off. Here, they live and die by them,” Bastian explained. “It has really improved the quality output and in many cases the productivity of our systems, which lowers the cost of the powertrain, which lowers the cost of the vehicle.”

Vehicle-specific benefits
Globally commonized display screens throughout the LTP assembly lines provide technicians and engineers real-time access to production, supply and machine-maintenance data. The richest data, Bastian noted, is generated at the equipment level by the Control Production Network (CPN), another benefit from the early investment in an extensive ethernet infrastructure.

That data is heavily leveraged locally in the “fog” (a network closer to the ground) particularly for production optimization, and in the Ford cloud to be shared globally among its supply and manufacturing locations. The data traceability is granular enough to provide adjustments at the vehicle’s final assembly point, such as individual tuning of the transmission’s control module based on data gathered from LTP’s valve-body test systems and component suppliers.

“We get information from our suppliers of valve-body parts, and take that data set and marry it with a data set that we collect,” Bastian said. “For every transmission, we broadcast that information to the vehicle plants around the world, which have the capability to enable that level of characterization. That transmission is personalized based off of the design of that control system. With the data we're collecting, you get the best-possible shift capability, out of the gate.”

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