Manufacturing flexibility is one of the industry’s hottest topics these days. And rightly so, because having flexible systems is one of the keys to effectively producing products according to customer demand.
Most of the talk about flexible manufacturing seems to center around assembly operations, while powertrain facilities are given very little attention. That’s unfortunate because companies spend billions of dollars each year on their powertrain operations, and flexibility is extremely critical to improving engine and transmission plants.
Just as automotive companies must respond to the latest customer vehicle trends — from compact cars to full-sized SUVs — they also must also listen to consumer desires for the engines and transmissions that power these vehicles. And people don’t seem to realize that on a costper- unit basis, car companies have a much greater investment tied up in a powertrain plant than in an assembly plant.
For example, a company may need to invest up to $1 billion to open an engine plant with an annual production of about 500,000 units. That’s a steep price to pay. To make that investment pay off, manufacturers have to make sure a plant has the capability to produce the types of the engines the public currently wants — as well as their future wants because the public’s whim could change on a moment’s notice.
The latest and greatest engine could be a V-8, a 6-cyl. or a 4-cyl., depending on anything from the hottest new vehicle segment to a sudden increase or decrease in the price of gas. Therefore, a flexible engine plant may need to produce a V-8, a 6- or 4-cyl. engine, and also may be able to produce engines with 2, 3 or 4 valves.
Powertrain plants also should be able to launch new products much faster, at lower costs and at higher qualities than previously attained. Assembly plants have gotten their launches down to a matter of weeks, sometimes even days. Yet too often powertrain launch schedules have not changed much from their long, costly past.
These days, manufacturers are focusing their efforts on finding ways to make their powertrain operations more flexible. One of the best examples of this is taking place at Ford’s engine plant in Windsor, Ontario. Ford recently announced a $700 million expansion of the plant, which includes the rollout of flexible manufacturing techniques that eventually will be expanded throughout the company’s worldwide engine facilities.
The Windsor plant also will begin production of a new version of Ford’s modular V-8 engine for its F-150 pickup trucks. The expansion includes a new cylinder head production line and final assembly areas, as well as the precision machining of several engine components.
What’s most significant is the lean, more flexible manufacturing system that will produce a 3-valve overhead cam, which Ford credits with providing increases in both power and fuel economy. But the addition of a series of in-line CNC machines also provides the plant with the flexibility to produce a number of different cylinder heads on the same production line.
Ford’s initial capital investment at Windsor is similar to new program costs of the past. But the new machinery that has been put in place, when combined with common carryover architecture, will enable Ford to reap dramatic cost reductions in future programs.
Of course, Ford is not alone in this effort to apply the concepts of common architecture and processes to its operations. General Motors, for example, blazed a similar path with its transmission plant in Romulus, Mich., and its engine plants in Flint, Mich., and Tonawanda, N.Y.
Other companies are following suit, as well. They know that assembly flexibility may get all of the attention, but the development and resulting flexibility of common architecture and processes is equally important at their powertrain operations.