Ford’s Move from High-Volume to Digital Manufacturing

How technology changes adopted by Ford in the 1990s led to the visualization of a digital strategy in 2008 that changed how the Ford Powertrain Group designs and manufactures its products.

The automotive industry is widely recognized as a leader in the adoption of automation technologies. Of course, much of this recognition has been tied to the industry’s heavy use of robotics since the 1980s. But the use of advanced automation in the automotive industry goes much deeper than that and Ford is a prime example of an early mover in this area.

Up to the 1990s, Ford Motor Co. was principally focused on high-volume manufacturing, said Mike Bastian, digital systems integration manager in Ford’s Global Powertrain Group. During a visit to the company’s Livonia, Mich., transmission manufacturing plant, arranged by Siemens, Bastian described operations in the Powertrain Group in the 1990s as a high-volume manufacturing operation revolving around zone control—with huge control panels used to control large sections of the production lines. In the mid 1990s, however, this began to change with the introduction of the Ford Production System, in which all large manufacturing engineering programs in the Powertrain Group were centralized with an eye toward greater standardization. In 2000, Ford had adopted its Flexible Manufacturing System, a key component of which involved the application of condition monitoring to the Powertrain Group’s machining systems.

Read an earlier article covering Ford Powertrain Group’s work to connect its plant floor systems to IT.

With these advances in place by 2005, the Powertrain Group officially moved from high-volume manufacturing to medium-volume line manufacturing to allow for more flexibility enabled by the use of digital tools and parallel path CNC machining systems, said Bastian. This instigated a push for the adoption of global control standards across the Powertrain Group in 2008. Under this initiative, the group focused on the global deployment of flexible systems and the standardization of factory information systems around the use of distributed control and machine condition monitoring.

The digital path
As Bastian sees it, the adoption of global control standards was key to putting the Powertrain Group on the digital manufacturing journey from that point forward. Implementation of these new standards took place between 2008 and 2012 and targeted three areas: hardware, software and networks.

By locking down the hardware standards around the use of IP65 programmable logic controllers (PLCs), integrated safety and conventional CNC machines with a product lifecycle roadmap and obsolescence management program for all, Bastian said the group could better manage the hardware with common programming software and commission the machines virtually using simulation.

The company’s software standard became the Ford Automation Software Template (FAST), which uses standardized function block programming and human-machine interface (HMI) displays. FAST is “key to our part tracking and tracing, process configuration, RFID use, throughput, machine monitoring and quality configurations,” Bastian said.

He added that Ford has a patent on the condition monitoring process it uses on some 4,000 CNCs around the world.

Bastian admits it was difficult to standardize in the beginning, because the people in the plants like what they like. "However, the managers understood how important standardization is," he adds "Without it, linking the digital and physical worlds is impossible.”

A critical aspect of FAST is the software’s Process Configuration Tool. This tool allows for centralized access to every assembly station as well as the recipe being used to assemble parts. With this level of access, changes to processes, parts and recipes can be made centrally and distributed to every station in the plant.

This helps the Ford Powertrain Group achieve its goal of having the HMIs at every station look the same globally, so that the workforce can move around as needed without the need for retraining on varied HMI displays. The HMI screens display the OK-to-build status for all aspects of a part, verifying that any component delivered for assembly can be used on the part being assembled at that time in that station.

Dashboards placed throughout the plant show the serial number of the part being worked on, what station it is at and the status of the stations—for example, blocked, cycling, waiting starved. These dashboards can be accessed remotely by authorized personnel.

“The software is where the secret sauce is,” said Bastian. “With FAST, it’s easy to test, replicate and scale our processes.”

Part tracking
Another key software aspect of the Powertrain Group’s digital strategy is its Global Part Tracking System (GPTS). This virtual RF system tracks parts throughout the plant—all of which are marked with a 2D matrix code. A camera in each cell records the part ID to track the part throughout the system across every gantry and work cell, uploading its status at each stop to the GPTS. Even in the entirely automated cells, robots position parts in front of the camera to mark their presence in the cell before work begins.

The GPTS has its own recipe manager that correlates with the data in FAST. With this information tied together with real-time status updates from the cameras, users can see what recipe and what machine each part went through and where it’s currently at in the system. In addition, if something is wrong with a part and it is rejected, the cameras capture this data at the point of rejection to ensure that part does not make its way back into system.

Across the Livonia plant, more than 1,100 features are tracked through the use of nearly 400 cameras.

With the hardware and software standards locked down, the Powertrain settled on Profinet as the group’s networking standard. Under this standard, all plant floor devices—from robots to printers and scanners—are linked via Ethernet on the controls production network. Above that, the manufacturing production network houses the servers that link the operations data with the corporate IT network.

Looking at these three segments—hardware, software and networks—as a whole, the Powertrain Group’s digital manufacturing strategy is based on digital design, digital tools and the digital factory using the digital twin, said Bastian, who added, "Our strategy is unique in how we connect controls with our production strategy.”

Under this digital direction, the Livonia plant has produced more than 1 million transmissions and is capable of building as many as 19 different transmission models.

Digital engineering
Jon Guske, manufacturing engineering manager for the Ford Powertrain Group, provided a deeper look into how the group’s digital strategy plays out in distinct areas of engineering and production.

“We use digital engineering tools across our more than 40 active powertrain programs, from 3D designs to create and validate parts to supporting program objectives such as safety and quality," ,” Guske said.

The Powertrain Group uses 3D technologies for process simulation to assess clearances, ergonomics, tooling use and cycle times before putting anything into production. Guske added that the group uses in-plant 3D scanning—digital scans of all the group’s facilities—so they can spotlight areas for improvement. These scans can also be used in digital reverse engineering to create 3D models of the plants.

The group is bringing these plant scans into virtual reality to recreate assembly sequences and assess location of dunnage. “With this technology, we can walk through any changes we design before we implement them,” Guske said.

Other digital engineering technologies used by the group include computer-aided process planning to develop process cycle charts and generate CNC part programs with optimized tool paths, and computer--aided engineering to create accurate predictions of machined component quality—an integral component to design for manufacturability. “Complex, decoupled models are used to identify and understand system interactions,” said Guske. “The simulations use resonant frequencies of the part, tool, and fixture—along with system cutting dynamics—to produce areas of stability. We also model the casting process to analyze material flow, solidification and residual stress.”

Guske added that 3D printing is used to prototype casting cores and rapidly design parts. “We use it to verify and validate fixtures—all for rapid validation of designs to reduce timing and costs,” he said.

Another digital engineering tool used by the group is offline robotic programming, which Guske said allows the group to optimize robotic processes before building parts and to reduce commissioning time at runoff and installation.

In total, these tools allow the Powertrain Group to isolate discrete event throughputs to qualify interactions between pieces of equipment that govern the behavior of complex manufacturing systems. “This allows us to maximize system capacity, place constraints in desired locations and test what-if changes to both processes and equipment,” said Guske.

Companies in this article
More in Control