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Toyota Transmission Manufacturer Upgrades with Wi-Fi

The ongoing production system upgrade at AWNC includes new MES, inventory management, predictive maintenance and quality systems that transmit all data for collection and analysis over a Cisco-enabled Wi-Fi network.

Inside the AW North Carolina transmission plant.
Inside the AW North Carolina transmission plant.

The automotive industry has long been at the forefront of applying new automation technologies. Though the industry has mostly been recognized for its robotic and related ergonomic advances, AW North Carolina—a manufacturer of transmissions for Toyota—shows how the industry is also at the forefront of industrial network modernization.

The 1 million sq.-ft. AW North Carolina (AWNC) plant in Durham, along with its companion .3 million sq.-ft. plant in Creedmore just 15 miles away, employ more than 2,000 people and produce more than 600,000 transmissions each year. Each AWNC transmission incorporates 700-800 parts, each of which has to meet Toyota’s exacting standards.

AWNC notes that the majority of Toyota vehicles on the road in the U.S., Canada and Mexico are equipped with transmissions from the AWNC plants.

Though AWNC is a relative newcomer on the industrial scene—having manufactured transmission components since 1998 and complete transmissions since 2004—like most manufacturers, its equipment was aging. A key aspect of the company’s current technology upgrade is focused on its operations networks.

AWNC partnered with Cisco to deploy a unified communications system and optimized network infrastructure that included:

  • Secure Wi-Fi coverage to more than a million square feet of factory floor;
  • The introduction of Cisco’s ASA (Adaptive Security Appliance) firewall technology for more effective routing of traffic and security;
  • A new Cisco Flexpod system to provide integrated computing, networking and data storage with a self-healing feature;
  • A disaster recovery system that allows AWNC’s Durham or Creedmoor facilities to be run from the alternate site in case of an impact.

Discussing the upgrade to the new Wi-Fi network, John Peterson, IT plant manager at AWNC, said the previous network was composed of 15 year old network switches and 10-12 year old server technology on CAT 5 cabling with multiple Wi-Fi systems that were “not working well together.”

The legacy network combined both wired and Wi-Fi technologies. However, these networks were “both older generations that weren’t in line with the current standards and capabilities,” said Peterson. “It was indicative of a network that had been pieced together over many years, versus one deployed form the outset with a comprehensive strategy.”

Peterson said the legacy network was “going down about two times per month, which cost the plant $270,000 per hour.” He added that the average down time for the old network was three to four hours per incident—essentially costing the plant about $1 million per outage.

Installation of the new Wi-Fi network began in June 2016 and took about two months to complete. In total, 52 Cisco 1850 access points were installed along with two Cisco 5500 Wireless LAN controllers between the two facilities, according to Dan Wiggins, vice president of manufacturing and IoT Solutions at Cisco.

Peterson said that, while the new network has made the collection of front office enterprise data more reliable, the bigger gains for AWNC have been in the manufacturing environment where “worker mobility has been enabled and wireless hand-held devices can now be used to send, gather and collect data for analysis.”

Production personnel at AWNC now have real-time access to data that, until the installation of the new network “had been hand written and transferred to spread sheets and then analyzed and reported on days or weeks later,” said Peterson. “With the new network foundation, as well as a new MES and related systems in place, data generation, gathering, collection, analysis and presentation to operators, engineering and management happens in minutes and hours—not days and weeks. The data collection with the new systems is already 50 percent improved in speed and accuracy.” 

The manufacturing execution system (MES) referenced above by Peterson is supplied by Schneider Electric Wonderware. The “related systems” he mentioned include a Z-Space inventory management system, Technotree’s Bluetooth quality system and an as-yet-to-be-determined maintenance management software that will be part of AWNC’s predictive maintenance system. Peterson said the Bluetooth-enabled tool measurement quality system will be used to aggregate the collection and analysis of operations data for a holistic view of the factory operations for yield, throughput, down time and quality.
 He added that all data from these related systems will be controlled through the Wonderware MES over the Cisco-enabled network.

Another significant aspect of this project was its effect on AWNC’s IT and operations technology (OT) groups. Wiggins noted that this project “un-siloed” the factory to converge the company’s IT and OT groups. He said that, before this project, the two groups kept separate data sets that would be combined only for presentation purposes. Now they each have each have access to shared enterprise and operations data.

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