Honda Brings Together IT and Plant Floor Operations

Nov. 6, 2014
Like most large manufacturing facilities, Honda Manufacturing of Alabama faced a common problem—an array of different automation system components. Some of these systems were custom designed for the plant’s operations, which meant that additional customization was required each time a new device was introduced.
The complexity created by the diverse array of automation systems in the facility—all of which were introduced to streamline production—turned out to be slowing operations down. And that was a big problem for the 3.7 million square foot plant facility, which happens to be Honda’s (Honda Motor Company, Ltd. largest light truck production facility in the world and the sole manufacturer of the Odyssey minivan, Pilot sport utility vehicle, Ridgeline pickup truck, Acura MDX, and V-6 engines.

Operations performed at the plant include steel and aluminum blanking, stamping, welding, painting, plastic injection molding, aluminum casting, aluminum machining, ferrous machining, vehicle sub-assembly and assembly, engine assembly, vehicle testing and quality assurance. At capacity, the plant produces about 360,000 vehicles and engines per year; thus the reason for so many disparate automation systems in existence at the plant.

To make better use of these different systems, increase commonality between tools and plants, and improve data quality, Honda’s plant floor IT managers were challenged with integrating disparate PLCs from Omron (Omron Global,, Rockwell Automation (Rockwell Automation, and Mitsubishi (Mitsubishi Motors, with proprietary manufacturing execution system (MES) applications, Hollis Technologies’ Activplant (Hollis Technologies, for data analytics, as well as IBM’s DB2 and Microsoft’s SQL database software.

Layered on top of these legacy systems, Honda—like most other manufacturing facilities—had been deploying an array of smart devices on the plant floor and embedding IT devices in plant equipment. These devices increased the amount of data generated by the production process and, at times, slowed down PLC scan times because of the increased data handling required. As a result, Honda needed to find a way to improve IT resources with simple common tools.

To address this challenge, Honda reorganized to bring IT and plant floor operations into one department for a central focus on production processes and supporting technology.

Honda’s first step toward this goal was to reduce custom code, which touched on everything integrated into the MES tracking application stack—from device drivers and program logic to configuration and application interfaces. The team began by investigating the equipment interfaces with a plan to migrate to an OPC-based solution provided by a single vendor. Their goal was to reduce the time required—typically six weeks—to write drivers to connect to equipment every time a new device was added to the plant floor.

The problem was that nearly all the systems Honda investigated required custom code to integrate their various manufacturing systems. This is exactly what the company was trying to avoid.

After more research into available options, Honda deployed the deviceWise industrial automation platform to bring everything into one common interface. Designed to operate within an enterprise, deviceWise (which runs on multiple platforms, such as Windows, Linux, AIX, etc.) connects and integrates production machines and processes with existing enterprise resource planning (ERP), manufacturing resource planning (MRP) systems, and SCADA applications. This capability enabled Honda to bring its blended systems—custom and OPC packages—into one common interface.

Honda can run deviceWise locally or communicate to the enterprise inside its data center and back to the factory floor. The IT department found that it can now collect data downstream and have nested information or devices below that. This creates a small, common architecture that feeds the data up to the enterprise, into the large systems such as the ERP or MES.

Another benefit Honda derived from the deviceWise system is the ability to handle large data sets sent from newer, more intelligent production devices with faster scan rate capability. For example, in Honda’s system, the history of a part serial number was retained in the PLCs. However, adding more data to the PLCs slowed the overall scan times, which could, at times, lead to missing data.

Implementing the deviceWise solution enabled Honda to simplify the plant device configuration, make the complex business logic buried in the application available to the plant device, remove complex ladder logic, and use a cheaper platform to write logic. It also meant that Honda could use the enterprise system to store and search the larger data set without impacting the PLC scan rate, improving performance.