Automation Fuels U.S. Automakers’ High-Capacity Resurgence

A 28-year veteran of Chrysler Automotive says automation and flexible manufacturing techniques are supporting U.S. automakers ability to meet rising demand.

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The implosion of the global economy in 2008 caused many businesses to reevaluate their practices and strategies, very quickly. The U.S. automotive industry was at the center of the economic collapse, with many automotive manufacturers receiving bailout money from the U.S. government to keep afloat. Just a few short years later, however, U.S. automakers are the darlings of high-capacity utilization.

In 2008, automotive plants closed, unions restructured contracts, and Tier 1 and 2 suppliers simply went out of business due to lack of sales. In 2009, U.S. vehicle sales plummeted to 10.4 million units, and 27 U.S.-based auto plants were closed.

Fast forward to 2013 and U.S. automotive plants are running three shifts, six days a week, and edmunds.com predicts more than 15.5 million U.S. vehicles will be sold, with forecasts of 16.4 million units to be sold in 2014. Chrysler sales alone hit a six-year high in 2013.

“With my over 40 years of experience in the auto industry, I have never seen this type of output from the limited number of plants” there are now,  asserts Bob Feldmaier, director at the Center for Advanced Automotive Technology at Macomb College, and a 28-year veteran of Chrysler Automotive.

Flexible manufacturing is the current mantra for U.S. automakers. Chrysler has three less assembly plants than they did 5 years ago and one less stamping plant. Increased production is being done through several things,” Feldmaier says. “One is, yes, there have been some of the union concessions on alternative work schedules and overtime. But there’s also increased automation.” 

For example, Chrysler Group is now relying on CNC equipment for all of its machining, and production lines are being reconfigured quickly by changing fixtures, tooling and software. Chrysler's tooling flexibility allowed it to change its production of engine types at the Tigershark mill in Dundee, Mich. in a matter of two weeks, moving from a 1.4 L, fully-integrated robotized engines to the 2.4 L engine.

Additionally, robotic stamping production at Chrysler includes immediate feedback for its line managers, using non-contact laser sensors to measure part and process variation. Feldmaier adds, “If you start to run outside of your three-sigma limits, you can start doing some adjustment. It’s data that is reviewed in real-time.”

Ford Motor Co.’s assembly plant in Chicago uses position sensors to monitor the 3,000 fasteners needed for each vehicle. Ford also has been migrating many vehicles to one production architecture (platform). The Chicago Ford plant runs the Ford Explorer, Taurus, Taurus SHO, Police Interceptor and Lincoln MKS on one platform. Ford has also accelerated the prototyping of its testable prototype metal parts, ranging from brake rotors to transmission cases, using "3D printers," also called additive manufacturing technology.

The increase in automation has reduced payrolls in the automotive industry, but Ford Fusion sedan sales, for one, are causing the company to hire an additional 1,400 workers. These  third-shift workers in Flat Rock, Mich., will allow the plant to increase capacity by 30 percent at a time when the Fusion is battling the Toyota Camry for top sedan sales in the U.S. for 2013.

Grant Gerke is a Contributing Writer for Automation World.

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