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Ford Provides Peek of Its Digital Manufacturing Strategy

Bill Koenig
By Bill Koenig Senior Editor, SME Media
A Ford employee at the company’s Livonia Transmission Plant, one of the flagship operations for the company’s digital manufacturing efforts. (Ford photo)

LIVONIA, Mich. – Ford Motor Co. provided a look at its digital factory strategy aimed at improving efficiency and quality.

The Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker said it has been pursuing Industry 4.0, the Internet of Things (IoT) and “connected” devices for more than a decade.

“When you think about Manufacturing 4.0, Industry 4.0, IoT, we have been on that journey since 2008 before those acronyms were even created,” Mike Bastian, digital systems integration manager-powertrain, said at a media briefing this week at the company’s Livonia Transmission Plant outside of Detroit. “That’s the message we’re trying to get across.”

The Livonia plant is one of Ford’s most advanced for digital manufacturing. “It’s one of our flagship plants,” Bastian said. He declined to specify how much Ford has invested in digital technology at Livonia.

The digital technology was implemented in 2015 and 2016. The digital investment coincided with a general revamping of the plant as new transmissions were introduced. It now produces three transmission models.

Industry 4.0 and IoT technology enables operators to monitor data generated at different work stations. Individual parts can be tracked. Inspections occur during production. The company also has stepped up its use of digital design and virtual reality computer simulations.

Ford said it has standardized software and controls as part of its digital manufacturing strategy.

‘Rich Data’

“Most of your rich data comes from your control systems,” Bastian said. “The origination of that data – 95 percent of the time, 90 percent of the time – is within the controls. You’ve got to get this part of it right. And we have nailed it as a company deploying these network standards.”

However, the transition wasn’t easy.

“It was very difficult,” Bastian said. “There was some resistance. We overcame those hurdles using leadership. Linking the physical world to the virtual world is impossible” without standardization.

“Machine tool makers are keeping pace because we pay them to keep up,” he said. “Our machine tool builders have to be trained in this. They work with our controls engineers. They have to adhere to that standard or they don’t do business with us.”

The company also sought to show the digital manufacturing could be adapted at Ford plants worldwide.

“One thing for sure about our product designs – complexity has increased and will continue to increase,” Bastian said. “Having the ability to stage material and be able to look ahead and see what’s coming at individual stations by model type is very key.”

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