TRAVERSE CITY, Mich.—Industry 4.0 is more than a buzzword. For a rapidly changing auto industry, 4.0 increasingly is about long-term survival.
To compete as both an automaker and supplier, companies must embrace manufacturing practices that allow them to be flexible, executives said again and again at the Center for Automotive Research's Management Briefing Seminars, held July 30-Aug. 2 in Traverse City. And the technology within 4.0 provides that ability to shift production quickly.
"It's not that industry is growing [in volume] in North America; it's that you have all kinds of different entrants and different models, so the number of programs out there has really required us to be much more flexible," said Nathan Bowen, vice president and general manager for the Americas for Yanfeng Global Automotive Interior Systems Co. Ltd.
Fifteen or even 10 years ago, the auto industry used to gear up manufacturing plants to turn out 250,000 vehicles of a certain platform each year. Now 50,000 of the same model is more typical.
Suppliers are not the only companies that need to shift quickly. Consider Toyota Motor Corp., which first began building a new plant in Guanajuato, Mexico, to make sedans in 2016. But before it even opened, the automaker looked at its shifting sales in North America and said the site would instead make Tacoma trucks.
From the start, though, Toyota de Mexico President Mike Bafan said it planned the site from the ground up to be flexible.
"It could be used for trucks, cars or thingamajigs. It doesn't matter," he said. "We have to be able to manufacture whatever we need to."
To make money in this environment, suppliers like Yanfeng need to be able to swap out molds quickly, use automation, have workers trained for a more digital workplace and take advantage of computerized visual inspection systems.
"When you look at the number of [vehicle] variants we have with some of our customers, no two parts come down a row that are the same," Bowen said. "They all have some unique characteristic. To take a human being and say, 'We want you to take a look at all this and tell us if it's perfect,' that becomes an almost impossible task."
Major suppliers such as Yanfeng, with North American offices in Novi, Mich., also have to take into account the major capital expense of injection molding machines, molds and assembly lines. They cannot just pick up and move production easily, he pointed out. So, Yanfeng is using more collaborative robots that can be put into place on existing lines without the expense or space needed for safety cages to separate them completely from workers.
Automated guided vehicles are going into more plants to not only pick up finished work at the end of the line, but also to deliver parts for assembly as needed, rather than investing in an overhead delivery line.
Using sensors on machines and molds to indicate when presses need service—before they break down—cuts repair time and keeps presses running efficiently, Bowen said.
"A lot of it is really driven on that need for flexibility," he said. "Obviously, there's a lot of movement in the industry, whether it's consolidations or a changing [geographic] footprint. In our business, our need is to be with our customers and to be where our customers are. So we need to have the flexibility that if one of our customers moves production, changes their footprint, that we're there to support them.
"So that does make you look at your production and your footprint very carefully. ... I would say maybe that makes us a little more thoughtful given just how dynamic the industry has been in regards to where we make these investments," Bowen said. "Really, we're trying to make sure they're flexible in nature and can provide a variety of products."