For years, North American manufacturing has experienced overcapacity and intense competition. As the market changes, manufacturers have had to respond in new ways to maintain their market share. Key to our success is our ability to provide customers with a range of quality products at competitive prices. Achieving the right level of flexibility at the right price while achieving consistently high quality has always required a balancing act, but we now have more of the means to meet all three goals: new, more robust control systems for tooling, and leading-edge equipment with greater flexibility.
The most flexible systems were probably the manual processes used before the introduction of computers and automation. While it was possible to easily and frequently change models and adjust production capacity with modest investment, manual systems were costly and could not achieve the high level of quality seen in today's products. As automation was introduced, the reliability and repeatability in manufacturing improved dramatically.
Unfortunately, automation drove up investment cost. And, it actually reduced flexibility; product changes could only be made with major investments in retooling, and many manufacturers moved toward standard product platforms to avoid that cost. So while we achieved better quality, we sacrificed on initial investment cost, flexibility, and lead time. Not to mention that consumers often became bored with products that reflected little variation.
As global competition has heated up, manufacturers are seeing opportunities to use new leading-edge flexible automation technologies and processes to produce more varied products at controlled costs. Automation technology continues to improve manufacturers' accuracy and repeatability. To make the system work, it takes a coordinated product-and-process compatibility strategy.
Like many automotive companies, my former employer, Ford Motor Company, is expanding the flexibility in its manufacturing facilities. According to Vice President of North American Vehicle Operations, Gary DeMars, Ford already has flexible automation in eight of its 19 assembly plants, with a goal to have flexible automation in 75% of its assembly and power train plants by 2010. As a result of flexible automation, Ford is able to produce multiple products on the same line with substantially less cost and reduced lead time.
Flexible automation is not the single solution to the challenges faced by North American manufacturers today, but it is one thing they can introduce quickly, and they are wisely doing so.
This is one of the reasons why SME's Technical Communities are so valuable to tens of thousands of manufacturing professionals. SME's seven communities, including its Automated Manufacturing & Assembly Community, help manufacturers discuss, share, and increase their knowledge related to the latest advances in manufacturing and technical solutions across the manufacturing enterprise.
Finding the right balance between flexibility and cost, and between quality and turnaround time: these will always remain challenges for manufacturers. SME offers a forum for manufacturing professionals to gather all the best information available today about the possible solutions, so that they can make the most informed decisions in our intensely competitive environment. We don't know exactly what the future will bring in further opportunities for automation, or for improvements in all areas within the manufacturing enterprise. But what we can count on is the fact that there will be a continuous flow of new ideas and innovations. And the smartest thing we can do is continue to share them for the collective benefit of our industries.