What Every Company Can Learn from the Best Smart Manufacturers

The Next Generation of manufacturing holds a great promise—and profit.

The aerospace industry may be the most sophisticated in its embrace of Next Generation manufacturing technologies, but the nation’s largest industry, the automotive sector, isn’t exactly asleep at the switch. Ford Motor, for example, is embracing Next Generation techniques to transform its global design and manufacturing operations. It won the “Manufacturer of the Year” award from the Manufacturing Leadership Council in 2013 for a system it developed with Siemens that allows Ford engineers to simulate the entire assembly process of vehicles at different plants. That capability assists in helping the engineers to understand what can be manufactured and what cannot be.

“The rollout of new systems that link each factory to global systems has been part and parcel of CEO Alan Mulally’s efforts to create “One Ford.”

The system, called IntoSite, also helps create more flexible production lines that build different models at the same time. IntoSite relies on Google Earth infrastructure and is a cloud-based, web application that allows users to zoom in on a specific plant and “see” what is happening throughout the factory.

But Ford isn’t stopping there, says John Fleming, vice president of global manufacturing and labor affairs in Dearborn, Mich. He estimates that the company assembles 25,000 vehicles a day at its plants around the world and that each one requires 3,000 parts arriving from different countries. Within many of those parts are sub-systems that suppliers already have put together. Much like assembling a jet engine, it is a task of extreme complexity. The rollout of new systems that link each factory to global systems has been part and parcel of CEO Alan Mulally’s efforts to create “One Ford,” rather than allowing its businesses in different regions to function with high degrees of autonomy.

“These advances are extremely enabling from a manufacturing perspective,” says Fleming. “When we look at our quality analysis and when we look at linking all of our factories with a factory information system, being able to bring all that together and to look at it globally helps us make decisions on a daily and weekly basis.”

Factory information systems allow plant managers to know exactly how many vehicles are being made and whether their quality is at acceptable levels. The same information is available to workers on the line. Ford is now linking different factory information systems from different plants into a bigger, global system. It is a powerful tool because it can help the company better maintain equipment, decide where to store spare parts and drive down overall lower costs by improving capacity utilization. Take the maintenance function alone. “We put in a standard maintenance operating system,” Fleming explains. “This is where collection and analysis of data is really important. It allows us to look at optimization. What are the pieces of equipment that are likely to require maintenance and are therefore the most at risk? A lot of this is about prevention and risk management.”

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