THE RISE OF ROBO-MANUFACTURING
The new tools also have become essential in planning how parts will reach each factory for assembly into vehicles. “At the end of the day, we still have to make things,” says Fleming. “An analysis of the data and how the networks work is important, but it comes down to getting the right material in the right place at the right time—every time. It’s that interface between equipment and our team members that finally makes it all work.”
More advanced robotics is another piece of the equation, because today’s robots can have multiple functions, rather than simply repeating one specific task. “They can join, they can weld, they can rivet, they can handle materials and they can do all those things in a certain cycle,” Fleming says. “They may pick up a part, put it in a place and pick up a welder and weld, then pick up a rivet gun and rivet, then apply an adhesive. All those things can be done with robots.”
The robots are linked to a network that defines how they interact with each other. The next challenge is improving the way robots engage with human workers. In recent years, most robots havehad to work behind a gate of some sort to avoid direct interaction with a human for safety reasons. But as robots improve and become safer, Ford says it has started to station robots side by side with its human workers.
Fleming declines to say how much money Ford is spending on the next generation of manufacturing, but it must easily represent hundreds of millions of dollars a year. The company obviously feels that there are clear payoffs available. One implication of the new manufacturing model is that companies can no longer afford the luxury of allowing their different arms to function semi-independently. Rather than coming up with an idea and “throwing it over the wall” to manufacturing, the new Holy Grail is that engineers and designers must know whether products they are creating actually can be manufactured by using computerized simulations that are part of “concurrent manufacturing.”
The way this concept works is that the Computer-Aided Design systems in engineering are linked to process planning systems and to manufacturing systems, so that the company can simulate making a product even while it is still being designed and engineered. One outcome is that new products or new iterations of existing products can be introduced much faster, and a greater degree of customization of products can be accommodated. But all of it hinges on breaking down internal, bureaucratic walls.