Automotive works on its mojo

These have been challenging times for automakers. But from parts management near the line and parts flow right up to it, some new approaches are in the works. Oh, yes, and electric vehicles are already having an impact.

In so many ways, the automotive industry would like to put 2022 behind it. Way behind it.

Consider these three low points.

  1. So many disruptions were created from lack of chips to Ford nameplate emblems. They required automakers to temporarily park nearly completed vehicles in lots until final parts were available, making a mockery of traditional assembly line efficiencies.
  2. In an industry that thrives on new products, building electric vehicles (EV) is a challenge. From half the number of parts of internal combustion engines (ICE) to mammoth battery packs, EV production has its own learning curve for parts flow and workers.
  3. Overall vehicle sales last year were the lowest they had been since the Great Recession due to supply chain disruptions. That, despite expectations of pent-up consumer demand for new vehicles.

That has led the industry to where it is today. “Supply chain resiliency was a luxury in the past for automotive. But it’s not anymore,” says Kacie Freeberg, senior director of industrial VST at ORBIS.

Fortunately, several pockets of new advances can be found in materials handling that stand to help on that resiliency. These range from sustainable packaging to an automatic guided vehicle (AGV) for EV production. There’s also the matter of improved flow of kits and components to the line alongside the rising value of track-and-trace technologies.

Things really are getting better for automakers when it comes to the supply chain. No kidding.

AMRs are increasingly being used to build kits.

Protecting EV batteries

Let’s start with EVs. Everything materials handling here is new.

That means, says Freeberg, that automakers are having to redefine safety, ergonomics, space availability and sequence. In addition, how parts, both packaged and not, will be moved throughout the facility and ultimately presented to workers will require their own new approaches.

That’s a lot to contend with. But let’s face it, in so many ways the elephant in the room here is lithium-ion batteries (LIBs). And that’s not just because they can weigh 1,500 pounds.

“Because batteries are becoming an integral part of the underside of the vehicle, we are already seeing battery packs being assembled on-site or very close to the assembly plants. The battery pack itself is highly customized for each type of vehicle, and we expect the trend toward batteries being built up close to the production line will continue,” this according to the publication Automotive Manufacturing Solutions.

That said, “to make EVs more affordable, there will be extreme emphasis on driving down cost within the supply chain. As a result, packaging of battery components is a major focus,” says Freeberg.

Top of the list here is reducing transportation costs. In fact, transportation is the largest single cost in the supply chain for automotive, says Matt Bush, vice president of engineering and innovation at KPI Solutions.

The challenge, he says, is to increase the density of parts and components inside the trailer. But as Freeberg points out, LIB components can easily weigh out a truck faster than it can be cubed out.

The other challenge is to maximize the return ratio of collapsed containers on their trip back to the manufacturing plant, wherever that might be, says Freeberg. The standard ratio today is 3:1, reducing the number of trucks needed to return sustainable containers by two for every three shipments.

At the same time, the packaging, says Freeburg, must conform to federal regulations from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Each battery pack is also required to pass specific performance testing to be certified. The ultimate goal is for the packaging to protect and contain the battery components from the stresses and shocks of shipping.

You also have a strong emphasis on sustainability of LIB packaging. Fortunately, this is an extension of current broad use of sustainable packaging for ICE parts and components. She estimates that 70% of Tier I automotive suppliers currently use reusable packaging as do at least 50% of Tier II suppliers.

“Companies across the automotive supply chain realize the value of sustainable containers,” adds Freeburg. “It’s not just a cost savings to them but fit right into their sustainability efforts. And what’s more about sustainability than EVs?”

Moving batteries to the line

In the case of a Ford F-150 battery pack, an assembled one weighs in at about 1,500 pounds. Battery packs for other vehicles are both heavier and lighter than the one for the Ford F-150.

To move batteries of many sizes from the warehouse to the assembly line, JBT has introduced an AGV with a maximum capacity of 3,500 pounds, explains sales manager Kevin Peake.

To maximize the AGV’s flexibility in moving large parts to the line, it has the ability to move not just forward and backward, but at an angle like a crab. A crabbing vehicle has a top speed of 350 feet per minute and uses natural environment technology for navigation.

Automated storage and retrieval systems consistently position and maximize access to parts and components on their way to the line. 

In addition to assembled battery packs, the vehicles, says Peake, can move battery trays and cells through the facility. He estimates that for a typical EV assembly line today, a fleet of 10 to 15 AGVs would be sufficient to keep the line moving at a desired speed.

“EVs are actually a catalyst for the expansion of AGVs at automakers,” adds Peake. “AGVs are so safe and adaptable that their use is actually changing the culture in auto plants as people work in close proximity to them continually,” he continues.

And the fact that the technology is both smarter and more reliable than it was even five years ago makes AGVs a powerful force in auto plants going forward, Peake adds.

Staging and kitting

As interesting as developments in EV production are, they’re not the only focus of automakers when it comes to handling and moving parts. Automakers still make mostly ICE vehicles. Millions of them to be precise. And they’re not standing idly by, but actively improving those operations.

As Bush of KPI explains, it’s a continuing battle for automakers to manage the flow and relative state of assembly completion of parts and components lineside, where space is at a premium. For instance, a key question continues to be: Is it better to send kits of parts to the line or stage all inventory there for on-the-spot assembly? “The kitting process takes space but reduces the number of steps people must take along the line,” adds Bush.

Rupesh Narkar, director of sales at Swisslog, acknowledges this is a real balancing act. “Automakers need to optimize inventory levels, flow and time on hand. Those three did not previously have the same degree of prominence as they do now,” he says.

Key words now include inventory visibility, traceability and control of it. Fortunately, Narkar also has a couple of solutions that can help.

One is automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS). These high-density, highly vertical, minimum floor square footage systems, he says, are typically located on the campus of the manufacturer to minimize travel time.

“AS/RS typically stocks 20 to 30 days of inventory, creating adequate local supply with both transparency and control as close as possible to lineside,” says Narkar. “Now, an AS/RS is not the solution for all parts. Due to size and weight of parts and components, AS/RS is an ideal solution for 35% to 40% of automotive parts,” he adds.

And going back to kitting, two other types of goods-to-person automation are applicable.

Narkar points to a cube-based automated storage system known as AutoStore. With inventory stored in a horizontal grid of cubes, mobile robots running on the top of the grid pick and store parts in designated locations. Those parts can then be delivered to kitting stations or collected for transportation lineside.

Another solution called CarryPick uses autonomous mobile robots, mobile racks and software to feed pick stations. There, workers build kits that are later transported to the assembly line.

At the same time, floor-running autonomous mobile robots are also gaining interest from automakers. The key attraction here is the ability of AMRs to deliver inventory without human involvement.

As Narkar says, it’s all about being able to consistently position, access and deliver parts and components. Not any easy task no matter how many vehicles are built in a year.

Track and trace

Making that happen requires “automakers to always know where all of their assets are so they can consume them precisely when needed,” says John Wirthlin, Zebra’s industry principal for manufacturing, transportation and logistics.

Delivering that level of inventory transparency requires data capture and management technology from bar codes and RFID tags to vision systems, he explains.

Both one-dimensional and two-dimensional bar codes have been used widely for a while at auto plants. And now, passive RFID tags that cost less than 10 cents apiece are used to track and trace as much as 50% of inventory at auto plants, says Wirthlin.

There’s also the matter of ensuring only parts within manufacturers’ standards ever make it to the assembly line, says Wirthlin. This is where machine vision systems come into the picture.

While used extensively for some time, machine vision is advancing with the introduction of network connections and software with artificial intelligence (AI). The former shares data about part quality with other control systems such as programmable controllers, which have a role in production. Meanwhile, AI allows the system to learn on the fly, enhancing quality control with every use.

While this has been a rough patch for automakers, they’re clearly trying new approaches to streamline the flow and visibility of parts on their way to the assembly line. Quite frankly, there’s too much at stake here to do anything else. 

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About the Author

Gary Forger's avatar
Gary Forger
Gary Forger is an editor at large for Modern Materials Handling. He is the former editorial director of Modern Materials Handling and senior vice president of MHI. He was also the editor of the Material Handling & Logistics U.S. Roadmap to 2030.
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