Tearing down manufacturing monuments

Fori Automation is ramping up production of automated guided vehicles to replace assembly lines in manufacturing plants, offering more flexibility by allowing one piece of equipment to support multiple vehicles.

December 11, 2014
By Robert Schoenberger

Ask a veteran assembler for directions around an auto assembly plant, and you’ll likely get introduced to world geography.“Turn right at the Eifel Tower. Stop when you get to Empire State. If you see the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ve gone too far.”

Nicknames for towering pieces of industrial equipment fill every plant. To automakers, those big fixtures are the enemy, and if plant managers had their way, they’d tear down every one of them.

“They want us to design tooling and equipment that can be installed quickly. They don’t want monuments. That’s the word they use,” says Paul Meloche, vice president of sales at Fori Automation, a company that makes work-handling equipment and automation systems. “They don’t want a fixture that takes weeks to install, that requires changes to the concrete, or pits or trenches in the floor.”

Those giant workstations, designed and built for specific vehicles or vehicle systems, are remnants of the past when car companies could count on one vehicle or design to sell 250,000 units or more. Today, unless the name is Toyota Camry or Ford F-150, the odds are that expectations are more modest. To maximize capacity, plants produce different cars and trucks, using flexible assembly systems to produce only the vehicles facing the highest demand.

For automation companies, that means building systems that can constantly switch between different equipment groups on a vehicle – produce convertibles, hatchbacks, and sedans with the same equipment – or even use the same lines to make radically different vehicles. Monuments don’t have much of a place in that fast-moving, constantly shifting space.

Automated guided vehicles

Though it makes conveyer systems and other traditional automation tools, Fori’s fastest-growing business line is automated guided vehicles (AGVs), electric carts that move workpieces or tooling to various pre-defined spots within a plant. Often performing the same basic function as a belted assembly line, the carts easily switch between parts radically different in size and shape because they’re not limited to a specific, hard-installed footprint.

Going from hard-installed conveyor systems to autonomous vehicles requires a switch in how plant managers plan investments. With conveyor systems, manufacturing product planners typically project their highest-possible production volumes for a vehicle and design a system to meet those levels. If demand projections are too high, they overbuild conveyors, wasting money on equipment. If they underestimate, plant equipment can’t build vehicles fast enough to maintain sales momentum.

“With AGVs, the investment ramp-up is more modular and flexible. You can add more AGVs as demand goes up. If you have too much capacity, you can reprogram them to do something else,” Meloche explains. “These are real multitaskers. They do more than just carry equipment. We’ve had people install tooling on AGVs so they can move the tool around the part instead of moving the part to new tooling.”

Pop-up assembly plants

Because Fori Automation’s AGVs don’t require many hard installation points, theoretically, they could go into any manufacturing space. One possible use would be to set up quick, short-term auto assembly plants near customers. If a fleet customer in Florida, for example, ordered 2,000 vehicles, the automaker could set up shop in a warehouse space, shipping components and AGV-mounted robots to perform assembly. Fori’s Paul Meloche says such as system could work on a small scale.

“In small, low-volume, niche manufacturing, it could work. People love customized cars, and you could probably get customers involved in building or watching their cars getting built,” Meloche says. But at 150,000 units of annual capacity, that’s just not possible.

Getting a few truckloads of parts isn’t too tough. Setting up just-in-time delivery systems is a completely different challenge. Meloche explains, “The planning that needs to go into the product, plant infrastructure, assembly process, logistics in the plant, and logistics of getting products from the suppliers to the plant – there’s a tremendous amount of investment and planning that has to happen.”

Meloche says high-volume assembly demands carefully balancing inventory, workflows, delivery schedules, and personnel. Getting those things right takes time and effort, so once companies have those systems down, they keep doing things the same way.

“If you’re looking to build a niche vehicle, low volume, and the parts are all sort of custom made, low enough volume that you don’t need your suppliers within 10 miles of the plant, that certainly opens you up to opportunities to having a plant that can go up much quicker and be in a much more remote location,” Meloche says.

And with speeds in some shops hitting 22ips, the AGVs can move parts and tools as quickly as many conveyor systems.

Most important, Meloche says, investments in the mobile systems aren’t tied to a specific plant geometry or layout. With new programming, companies can send AGVs back and forth to different plants as demand shifts from one vehicle to the next. Automakers typically move robots and even large stamping presses from location to location, minimizing investments in new manufacturing monuments. Meloche believes that AGVs will become highly mobile as the industry adopts such systems.

System design/control

Because AGVs are mobile, installing them is faster and simpler than with new conveyor equipment. In most cases, installers dig a narrow, shallow trench in plant floors to install magnetic guidance tracks – thin strips of metal that will effectively tell the AGVs were they are when the vehicles are in motion.

With the guidance strips in place, programmers can tell the AGVs where to go to pick up materials, where on the floor to deliver them, how long to wait for work to be done, and where to go next. Unlike conveyor systems, the machines have built-in intelligence to improve efficiency and safety. Sensors tell them if employees or equipment are nearby, so the carts won’t collide with their surroundings, even if their programs tell them to do so. Fori partnered with Siemens to develop custom, handheld, touch-screen controls for the carts, giving operators overviews of AGV operating conditions and simple joystick-style navigation controls.

Len Dorazio, key account manager, Automotive Tier 1, Siemens Industry U.S., says the custom controls help tie the AGVs into complex plant management software systems that manage just-in-time material arrivals, production sequencing, work flows, and other systems. “System controls are key on an application like this because everything’s communicating in these plants. There are no standalone systems.”

Faster, simpler plant upgrades

Because the AGV systems are already mobile, Fori needs less time to install automation into plants. The system becomes more of a vehicle delivery than a construction effort. Quick installation is key right now because auto sales continue to rise, and many plants have shortened or canceled the traditional summer and fall shutdowns when suppliers historically had time to upgrade equipment. At Ford’s Dearborn Assembly Plant earlier this year, for example, crews of employees followed the last 2014 F-150 pickup down the assembly line, tearing out the equipment that made it. The goal was to shorten, as much as possible, the time needed to install new equipment for the aluminum-bodied 2015 truck model.

“They have smaller and smaller windows for shutdowns, because right now, these plants are making money. They never want that equipment to be down. You never get access to the equipment to make changes,” Meloche states. “And when they do a shutdown, they’re running up to the very last minute, and you have to plan your installation down to the hour.”

He compares average equipment installation events today to home makeover shows in which huge crews tear down and rebuild houses in less than a week. Every contractor has to hit his deadlines to make that complex changeover work, and that’s what automotive customers are demanding now.

Because of growing demand for AGVs with automotive, aerospace, and off-highway equipment producers, Fori has been expanding. In late 2013, it opened its second manufacturing plant in Shelby Township, Michigan, to expand AGV production, and Meloche says Fori is already at full capacity at the two plants. Fori also has sales and manufacturing locations in Mexico, Brazil, Germany, China, India, and Korea.


Fori Automation

About the author: Robert Schoenberger is the editor of TMV and can be reached at 216.393.0271 or rschoenberger@gie.net.