The company has large installations pending or progressing on four continents. General Motors recently named KUKA Systems 2011 Global Supplier of the Year for Body Shop Welding Lines, primarily for upgrade projects carried out at three Opel plants in Europe. (Last year, Northrop Grumman named KUKA Systems its tooling supplier of the year for developing a highly automated manufacturing system for aircraft fuselages.)
Two of the assembly lines covered by the GM award were located at plants in Germany, the third at Gliwice in Poland. New welding, brazing and metal folding technologies were introduced, along with KUKA’s flexible framing system so each line can produce multiple models – as many of six at a time. KUKA Systems also is a leading supplier to the Ford World Car project, as well as major European automakers at home and abroad. Its’ welding cells have been installed around the world and the company continues to roll out new bonding and joining technologies developed in-house or in collaboration with major automotive customers. In all, KUKA employs 3,600 people in 15 countries.
Automotive Industries (AI) spoke to Lawrence A. Drake, chief executive of KUKA Systems Group, and Frank Klingemann, CEO of KUKA Systems GmbH, responsible for all projects and operations in Europe.
AI: How do we interpret all this positive activity amid continuing economic uncertainty on both sides of the Atlantic?
Drake: The trend we see emerging worldwide is the requirement by OEMs to refresh their product portfolios. Previously, the product makeover cycle was 6-8 years. Now, we are seeing products change every 3-5 years.
Klingemann: The range of products has increased massively. This is especially true for premium carmakers. Nowadays, each platform is being used for a base model, station wagon, coupe, convertible, SUV… 7-8 models have become fairly typical. That makes it imperative for them to embrace flexible manufacturing lines in all locations worldwide.
AI: Are there any signs that Europe’s debt crisis is going to slow your business on the Continent?
Klingemann: Not really. The market is being driven by the need of our customers for a wide range of new models to satisfy the ever-increasing demands of car buyers. Even if economic conditions deteriorate in the medium term, I am convinced there will continue to be strong demand to invest in production capacity to cope with the diversified requirements for assembling a wide range of models.
Drake: I would add that in the mature markets of Europe and North America, investments will continue to be geared towards refresh programs – investment in flexible tooling integration – rather than greenfield sites.
AI: Another sign of the recovery from the global recession is higher costs for parts and labor. How is KUKA Systems able to remain cost-competitive?
Drake: During the crisis years of 2009-10, we restructured our mature operations to better withstand future downturns. Since then, we’ve focused our expansion on support structures in low costs countries, while keeping our highly technical and experienced work force constant.
Klingemann: There has been price inflation from our suppliers – sometimes huge increases. To offset this we have responded with smart procurement policies and a consistentlow-cost strategy. In addition, we have defined our core competencies in order to increase our own contributions at different points along the value chain and reduce dependence on suppliers.
AI: What trends do you see in what the automakers want from KUKA Systems?
Klingemann: On the one hand, they need highly flexible manufacturing systems to be able to produce up to six models on a line. On the other hand, they want to embrace new technologies, like lightweight construction that will reduce fuel consumption. In today’s production world, we have a material mix that typically includes high strength steels and for parts, aluminum, magnesium and increasingly, plastics and new-age composites. KUKA Systems has been in the forefront of developing the appropriate joining technologies, often in close partnership with leading R&D institutes. One example is our Robospin system for reliable spot-welding of aluminum in mass production.
AI: What do you think were the most important performance achievements in the three Opel installations that led to being named a GM Supplier of the Year?
Klingemann: We completed the jobs on time, on budget and delivered the promised quality. The biggest challenge was implementing the projects on an extremely demanding schedule, since these assembly lines continued to turn out vehicles.
AI: From an engineering standpoint, how does your planning approach differ between a greenfield installation or retrofitting a legacy plant?
Drake: New plants are designed with a specific process in mind. Everything gets properly placed to accommodate a process – bathrooms, team member areas, CMM, logistics, etc. Our up-front involvement allows us to help designate where these areas are placed. When we go into an existing plant, these areas already exist, so we have to work our processes around fixed conditions. The key to a successful installation in existing plants is a detailed industrial engineering field check.
Klingemann: Almost all the on-site construction work for these retrofit, projects is done on weekends and holidays. This is an extremely precise time-and-resource planning exercise with an increased engineering component. These projects would be almost impossible to do without employing simulation tools, including off-line programming and virtual commissioning.
AI: What are the challenges and opportunities in doing installations for a common platform at multiple locations, especially on different continents?
Drake: The challenges arising from different local cultures and standards are endless. For example, Brazilians are particular about the way they build their control panels. Their software architecture follows European standards to some extent. In Brazil, we had to find a way to include these specifications in the Mexican and North America standards used by Ford.
AI: Where lessons are learned, knowledge gained or improvements made at one plant involving a common platform, how does that get transferred to other locations?
Drake: KUKA Systems always tries to involve the same key management team members in the upfront planning stages of global projects on common models or platforms, which helps us develop and share best practices across locations. So long as we are dealing with the same customer for different plants or countries, that customer’s planning groups are made aware of the opportunities for improvement and often adopt our ideas and concepts.