Working Smarter on the Shop Floor

October 16, 2007

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After R&D is completed, it's up to the workers on the floor to get the vehicle out the door. What developments are driving change and enabling the rank-and-file to work smarter and quicker?

Automakers started using robots more than 25 years ago. And they never looked back.

A total of 9,208 robots valued at $525.2 million were ordered by North American manufacturing companies in the first half of 2007. When orders to companies outside North America are included, total sales for North American-based robot suppliers totaled 9,992 robots valued at $563.2 million. These totals represent a gain of 40 percent in units and 12 percent in revenue. April to June was particularly strong, with increases of 60 percent in units and 24 percent in revenue over the comparable period in 2006.

Chalk it up to automakers.

According to figures released in August by the Robotics Industries Association (RIA), this year's gains can be traced primarily to a 76 percent jump in orders to automotive manufacturers and their suppliers. In terms of applications, spot welding orders posted the largest increase in the first six months of the year (150 percent), followed by coating and dispensing (38 percent) and material handling (25 percent), notes the RIA.

Today, robots populate production lines, performing ever more complex tasks, from welding and coating to dispensing and materials handling.

The increasing use of electric tools highlights another example of more precise workmanship. "Automotive fastening, once done almost exclusively by pneumatic tools, is rapidly moving toward electronics," according to Automotive News (free registration required). These days, electric tools "make up about 50 percent of the automotive fastening market," due to their providing full traceability with archived data and requiring less maintenance than pneumatic tools.

The auto magazine notes:

Manufacturers and suppliers are willing to overlook higher prices on electric tools — as much as 10 times more expensive than their pneumatic cousins — because they make many assembly operations virtually errorless.

Regardless of whether electric or pneumatic tools are used, production can't occur smoothly without having the right components at the right place at the right time. It's up to automotive suppliers to perfect their delivery performance.

Writes Terry Onica, director of automotive marketing for enterprise applications provider QAD, at

There's a high price to pay for inventory in the wrong place. A thriving global automotive industry in the future will depend on a standard level of performance for materials flow.

Onica cites the Materials Management Operations Guideline/Logistics Evaluation (MMOG/LE) as helping auto manufacturer suppliers in a big way.

The MMOG/LE, a self-assessment charter for measuring materials management efficiency within a supplier manufacturing facility, provides a set of best practices for suppliers to assess and improve materials management, with an emphasis on using automation for increasing efficiency and streamlining processes. "For suppliers, the global MMOG/LE assessment helps to identify what process adjustments are needed. It shows where enterprise technology can help automate processes to avoid manual processing of customer and supplier data." It "saves time and costs while helping to ensure effective, efficient management of materials." Further, data accuracy increases, data capture occurs more uniformly, and an electronic trail permits replacement of paper tracking and tracing of data accuracy.

Since 2004, suppliers have reported notable improvements when MMOG/LE is used each year. These improvements include "a 50 percent reduction in raw materials and finished goods, an 85 percent reduction in premium freight, and an 80 percent reduction in obsolescence costs," according to Onica.

Such data transfer can occur not only between supplier and assembler, but also among several suppliers. In an era when automakers need to rely more on suppliers for innovation, this makes sense. Sharing and developing data enables suppliers to participate in finding new ways to please customers, gain market share and delight shareholders.

Now more than ever, it is much more important to go in and listen to what customers are asking for.

Collaborative partnerships — like all tools and processes that make automotive manufacturing move forward — nurture continuous improvement by enabling a better understanding of the dynamics of a customer's world.


Robot Sales Jump 39 Percent in North America in First Half of 2007 Robotics Industry Association, Aug. 13, 2007

Automotive Robot Orders Accelerate in Second Quarter by Michael LeGault Automotive News, Aug. 15, 2007

Electric Tools Charge Up Assembly Lines by Michael LeGault Automotive News, Aug. 9, 2007

Viewpoint: Manufacturing Drive to Perfection by Terry Onica Supply Chain Standard, Oct. 1, 2007


Auto Suppliers Learn to Work in Partnerships by Julia Bauer The Grand Rapids Press, Sept. 21, 2007

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