2/5/2004 | 9 MINUTE READ

Chrysler Group's Approaches to Advanced Manufacturing Engineering

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They're aggressive in their development of greater flexibility. They're working their capital equipment harder and longer. And they're counting on technology advances to make vehicle manufacturing even better.


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When it comes to process development at the Chrysler Group, Frank J. Ewasyshyn and his colleagues are pretty much the ones who are responsible for finding the ways and means to build better cars, trucks, and minivans: Ewasyshyn is the senior vice president, Advance Manufacturing Engineering for the vehicle manufacturer, a position that he’s held since September 1999. During 2004, Chrysler is rolling out with numerous cars and trucks. CEO Dieter Zetsche claims that this “product offensive” is unparalleled in the history of the U.S. auto industry, with nine new vehicles. So, while there is certainly going to be attention placed on how well, say, the Chrysler 300C looks and drives and is put together, or on how well the ‘05 Jeep Grand Cherokee does in a market that is now full of vehicles in that size (if not with that capability), the issue of profitability producing product that has world-class levels of quality really has its bedrock in the advance manufacturing engineering community at Chrysler. So to get a sense of where Chrysler is now and where it might be going in terms of process technology, we ask Ewasyshyn. . . .

On Manufacturing Flexibility
“No, we don’t have enough flexibility right now,” Ewasyshyn candidly admits. But he goes on to say that they are working hard to increase it—but through evolution, not what he calls a “flexibility spree,” or an artificial program meant to increase the flexibility in the plants by some defined point in time. Of course, given the number of new programs that they’re working, the degree of flexibility that can be achieved by simply adding it with each new program is significant.

When asked to define what he means by flexibility, Ewasyshyn answers, “We’re not restricting ourselves to purely vehicle size.” That is, he says they’re not just thinking in terms of small-medium vehicle plants and large vehicle plants, which has pretty much been the approach other companies have taken. “It may be that we’ll have a small car cross-loaded into a plant that has the ability to build something bigger.” In fact, he says that because of the influences of sibling and affiliated companies—Mercedes, Mitsubishi, Hyundai—they are thinking differently than other companies. “We’re going to have to handle different architectures in similar buildings.” By way of further explanation, he says, “We’re trying to take a step back and look at it from a more universal approach than from a specific product or platform approach.” He references the now-famous/infamous situation at the Belvedere Assembly Plant, when it was discovered that the paint shop didn’t have sufficient overhead clearance to accommodate the PT Cruiser. As that plant has been redone, the concept of handling different-sized vehicles was taken into account: “It will never run anything as big as the minivan, but it doesn’t stop us from running different types of products in the same building.”

But there’s more. A lot more. “We’re looking at not just flexibility within a building, but flexibility within the product, plant-to-plant, and business model flexibility.” As for an example of the last-mentioned, Ewasysyhn says, “Supplier parks and expanding the boundaries of normal ownership—we also consider that to be versions of flexibility.”

One more important thing to know about the Chrysler approach to flexibility: “We’re doing it without adding any extra cost.”

In fact, they’ve reduced spending. According to Ewasyshyn, compared to the year 2000, the capital plan is down by 40%, even though they’ve increased the number of models they are producing. “We’ve changed the standards. Changed what we buy. Where we buy. How we buy. We’ve leveraged the Covisint system wherever we could, and we have a very aggressive competitive bidding process.”

On Metalcutting
“Most people have been chasing speed,” Ewasyshyn says. He cites machines with linear induction motors to move the axes, machines with spindles that have high rpms and high torque. The machines are one thing. “What are lagging behind are the cutting tools to support them.” He says that whereas, for example, you can do high-speed machining in aluminum, once you go to a different material “the tool life isn’t there.” He observes, “In the past, tool capability was better than the machine; now the machine has gone beyond where the tool capability is, so there’s going to have to be a lot of work done in cutting tools.”

CNC machines are going to become more prevalent. He cites the World Engine Program that Chrysler is undertaking with Mitsubishi and Hyundai, which will go into production in 2005 and which will have an annual volume of 1.5-million engines: “It is basically all CNC except for critical operations that are set up on transfer lines.” The transfer lines will be used for purposes of controlling tight-tolerance operations.

While they are doing work on near-dry machining operations, and while he suggests that this will undoubtedly increase with time, the real focus is on minimizing the overall amount of machining performed. That is, he points out that casting technology is improving thanks, in large part, to sensor technology that mitigates the need to produce castings with additional material in order to help assure that porosity is brought to the surface. That additional material then has to be removed through machining. But by producing near-net shape castings, there is a need to remove less material. Because less material is being removed, it is possible to run at higher speeds and feeds, so the machining that is done is also being performed more quickly than is the norm.

Ewasyshyn doesn’t foresee any big changes in the fundamentals of machine tools. He does, however, anticipate “the next big breakthrough” in metalcutting to come in the form of fixturing: “How can you hold the part so that you can take complete advantage of what the machine can do?” he rhetorically asks. An objective is to achieve levels of reconfigurability in the tooling so that the machines can run different parts.

On Forming
“Even if someone were to come in and say that they could get me a press for half price, I’d say, ‘See me in 25 years.’” Ewasyshyn says that Chrysler has spent a considerable amount of money on transfer presses, and the plan for presses—as well as for all capital equipment—is to use the investment to the utmost. “Our whole drive here is to run the assets as long as we possibly can and get the absolute maximum amount of life out of that asset.” So when they are looking at presses, metalcutting machines, robots, and other equipment, what they are focusing on is how they can change the things that touch the part. In the case of a robot, it is the end effectors. In the case of the metalcutting machines, it is things like the fixtures. In the case of stamping presses, it’s dies.

“People are now looking at making money at 100,000 units, not 300,000 or 400,000. That means you’ve got to find a way to get die costs down,” Ewasyshyn says. So he sees dies—production dies, not just tryouts—becoming lighter: “significantly lighter than anything we’ve ever used.” The focus will be on the surface that touches the sheet metal, not on the entire die surface: “Cut the least amount you can.” He acknowledges that with lighter dies comes greater responsibility: “Better maintenance, discipline, process control. They’re important or you’ll break the dies.”

They’re looking at dies that are ideal for short runs in the 10,000 to 15,000-piece quantities as well as dies for running 10 years. About the former, he says that providing a surface coating onto a substrate (e.g., a spray-on or flame coating) could be an efficient way of getting shorter runs. Mercedes, he says, has been working with ceramic dies. These tools have a “tough, tough surface, phenomenal life, and almost no lubrication is required.” But there is a big factor to be taken into account. The ceramic dies are expensive. So, their application will be for products that have a long life: “You want something you’re going to run for 10 years.” Things like seat frames or brackets, for example.

On Material Handling
“Material handling and flexibility can be best friends or worst enemies.” That is, if you’re building more, different products, if you’re providing an array of options, there’s more material to move and manage. Consequently, there is a need to consider the best ways to move the product, rack it, and package it. Ewasyshyn says that the traditional approach to moving parts and products in North American plants—heavy conveyors—is going to give way. “It has to be lighter, less expensive, and more flexible.” And the approaches are going to be varied.

AGVs could reemerge. But unlike the automated guided vehicles of the past, where there could be trouble getting them to track, these could be GPS-guided vehicles. “I don’t see us moving bodies on AGVs. That would be too expensive.” But AGVs could be used for bringing parts to the line. The precision skid underbody system that is being used to move bodies in places like the Windsor Assembly Plant will probably find more replication.

On Stamping & Welding
The conventional approach to building cars is to stamp sheet metal—most often steel—and then to use resistance welding to put the metal pieces together. Although some people have suggested that there can be more advanced methods used, so far as Ewasyshyn is concerned, stamping and welding it is, and stamping and welding it will continue to be. “There will be a lot more structural adhesives,” he adds.

But what about laser welding? Doesn’t it offer manifold benefits? “Probably the best people doing laser welding are at Mercedes,” Ewasyshyn begins. “We’re working closely with them. Laser welding continues to have problems with out-gassing, control of gaps, and not being able to weld through sealers. All of those problems are there and they haven’t gone away. Lasers are more efficient, better, more reliable, and less complicated—but when you hit the part, you still have the same issues.”

Another issue he cites with regard to lasers relates to the need for clamping fixtures. “If you need a fixture to clamp at every weld, that is going to be a tough one to sell for a while.”

And while some have thought that the days of spot welding are numbered, Ewasyshyn isn’t among them: “Resistance welding is going to come down in cost. Controls are less expensive. Power electronics are getting more powerful, less expensive, and have a longer life. It’s gaining momentum.”

On the Life of Capital Equipment
“The old days are gone. The days of throwing it out after six years is completely gone. We got into that habit. It was unfortunate. But it’s gone forever.

“The intent is to create a process where the hard capital assets stay for a minimum of 12 years. If you think about that, it has a tremendous impact on investment.”

So not only are they going to be working their equipment to the point of uselessness (there is even a warehouse in Illinois where equipment is refurbished and kept until it can be redeployed), but they are going to become more stringent in their buying approach. For one thing, he notes that because they have colleagues in Europe, Japan, and Korea, sourcing machines or dies in those areas is not a problem because they have people there, on the ground. “We can set target prices that are international.” While that statement may be something of a bucket of cold water in the faces of many equipment suppliers, Frank Ewasyshyn simply states, “It’s the same world we live in. It’s an international market, and you have to live in that international world.”


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