An Automotive Seat Maker’s Drive to Industry 4.0

Feb. 7, 2018
Pushed to develop an Industry 4.0 program by some big names in car manufacturing, Adient decided to start with one of its best performing plants—to really prove what the technology could do.

When manufacturers and their automation suppliers talk about getting a start with Industry 4.0 technologies, the discussion often centers around going after the low-hanging fruit. But when automotive seating company Adient was pushed by some of the biggest names in car manufacturing to get on board the Industry 4.0 train, they decided on a different approach: Start with the factory that needs it the least.

Adient chose an assembly plant in Sunderland, UK, to make a solid case for Industry 4.0 innovation. “It was one of our best plants. If we could drive an additional 5 percent conversion cost out of there, then you have something,” said John Moulton, vice president of operational excellence at Adient before he retired about a month ago. “We would make it a model plant, with the latest and greatest automation and assembly technology there. Then all the other plant managers would say, ‘I want to have that too.’”

Beginning first by examining Adient Sunderland’s pain points and biggest problems, the team put together more than 30 possible use cases, prioritized those to 18 through a workshop, and ultimately launched 12 into implementation.

One example Moulton showed to his audience last week at the Industry 4.0 ThinkTank in Chicago combines robotics, machine vision and deep learning technologies. Together, the technologies enabled a robot to know exactly where to apply steam to finished seats.

In another case, Adient used augmented reality (AR) to speed up training. This was particularly useful at a plant in Eastern Europe, whose workforce speaks a mixture of 12 different languages.

What Moulton was most interested in from the Industry 4.0 toolbox was analytics—the availability of data and the opportunity to see what insights could be gained. “This was one of our best running plants, but we saw the differences month to month,” he said.

Adient is progressing from using the data to find out what happened to using it to predict what to do differently to run the operation better, Moulton noted. “We can get the insights to make the changes necessary to improve quality and reduce downtime,” he said, and urged the audience, “Start collecting the data; you’ll be amazed what you can actually do with it.”

Though it’s still a work in progress, Moulton said, it’s an exciting one. “We’re collecting data today; we know we need more data,” he said. “But we need somebody to help analyze it.”

That’s where the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) has come in—first understanding Adient’s process and then putting an analysis together. “We didn’t start with: Hey, let’s collect everything and see what we might need it for,” said Jonathan Van Wyck, a principal at BCG. “We looked first at the pain points. We identified what is really critical and how do we set up the infrastructure around that to really use that data.”

As Van Wyck pointed out, everything that Adient and others are doing with regard to Industry 4.0 innovations—using smart robots, connecting through the cloud, reacting in real time, etc.—is built on the solid industrial basics already in existence. It was a point made by several speakers during the two days of the Industry 4.0 ThinkTank in Chicago: Start with a strong foundation.

A strong starting point is exactly what Adient’s Sunderland plant had—with best business practices, solid automation, supply chain optimization, continuous improvement and quality programs already in place. “They had over $300 million of continuous improvement every year, with a strong focus on quality,” Moulton said.

Despite everything that Adient Sunderland was doing well, it was still not a cost leader, Moulton said, and wasn’t winning all the business it could. There were still opportunities for improvement.

After trying out Industry 4.0 at an assembly plant, Adient wanted to move on to a different type of environment. So it moved the initiative next to a chemical processing plant in Strasbourg, France, where it has seen further success. From here, the seat maker plans to scale the initiative across more of its plants.

With 230 assembly and manufacturing plants around the world, the biggest push for pursuing Industry 4.0 actually came from the customers themselves. Companies like BMW, Volkswagen, Mercedes and Renault were asking Adient what they were doing in Industry 4.0. This pushed the initiative straight to the top, with the C-level executives looking at how to accelerate the process.

Moulton firmly believes that Industry 4.0 should be a CEO topic—not just a discussion for the technical people in the company. In fact, the discussion needs to start not with the technologies available, but by examining the manufacturer’s pain points and opportunities for performance improvement, he said. And don’t forget the people side of the equation, he cautioned, including change management, skills gaps and training.