Nexteer’s Approach to Manufacturing Data

This Tier One supplier is well on the way in its “advanced, holistic, integrative approach” to design and manufacturing.

For the past four years, Nexteer Automotive (nexteer.com) has been doing the next best thing many companies do in design and manufacturing management: integrating the information systems of each into a single, “advanced, holistic, integrative” resource. Called “Digital Trace Manufacturing” (DTM), Nexteer’s system combines digital technologies and data analytics into a company-wide architecture for Nexteer’s 24 manufacturing locations worldwide.

DTM, says Dennis Hoeg, vice president and North American COO of Nexteer, uses a “connect-the-dots approach—the thousands of data-producing dots around the world are standardized and talk to one another. Each dot represents a machine, process, database, document, workplace robot and so on.”

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The result, continues Hoeg, is “a good thing for us and a good thing for customers. It’ll just make our products better. Improvements in design or production made at one location can quickly be replicated globally.”

On the road to information
Nexteer is a multibillion-dollar global manufacturer of electric and hydraulic steering systems, steering columns, driveline systems, advanced driver assistance systems and automated driving technologies. As with the rest of the automotive industry, Nexteer had been using 2D, then 3D computer-aided design (CAD) for years. Over time, Nexteer developed its own inventory, quality and maintenance systems. The company had tried some commercial systems, but, says Hoeg, “we saw the need to expand from these bland, simple systems to developing our own software that met our complicated needs. It takes so long to get somebody from outside up to speed regarding our operations and what we’re trying to accomplish. It’s almost quicker to do it ourselves.”

That said, several of Nexteer’s information systems are commercial. For example, the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system is from QAD (qad.com); product lifecycle management (PLM), Teamcenter from SiemensPLMSoftware (plm.automation.siemens.com). “We use those as a base,” says Hoeg, and Nexteer has slightly customized those information systems. “We try not to do too much because that’s always a danger.”

Another in-house developed system is for traceability/genealogy, internally referred to as “NexTrace.” Says Hoeg, “Because we’re manufacturing a safety-critical product, traceability was a key to implement first. A lot of other companies went the manufacturing execution system (MES) route, and that’s good for cost and efficiency, but we went after product quality and performance.”

Now the company is pilot testing MES to monitor and manage processes in real time across its factory floors worldwide. The pilots include in-house developed systems and TrakSYS by Parsec (parsec-corp.com). “I like to have 'one size fits all' as far as software goes,” explains Hoeg, “but on the MES side, I don’t think that holds true. You need to have either an MES or an MES-lite system, depending on plant and product complexity, size and those kinds of things.”

One of many examples of benefits
DTM benefits abound, but here’s one from Hoeg. Some of Nexteer’s electric steering systems consist of over 1,500 line items of performance data. Each of these steering systems is serialized with a radio frequency (RF) tag that acts as a license plate for that assembly. This serialization becomes the backbone of the digital information generated by manufacturing, including machining data, maintenance, inventory control and MES. “You can keep only so much data on the RF tags,” explains Hoeg, “so what we’re doing is tracking pallets against serial numbers against performance data. Then we’re using analytics from all of the performance data from the multiple test stands that these pallets flow through, and create a 'heat map.' The map helps us understand how to manage pallets, do maintenance repair and understand which pallets—actually, the assemblies on the pallets—are starting to fail. It’s a deeper version of what we would have seen from materials handling from years ago.”

Incidentally, Nexteer uses Microsoft Power BI (powerbi.microsoft.com/en-us/) for analytics—again, out of the box; no tweaking. This tool, continues Hoeg, helps turn “data into something that’s actionable, and then into something that makes the system smarter. We talk about 'lessons learned' and how to calibrate that into pro-active decision making. As we’re getting more of this data, everybody is getting smarter. Now we truly understand how things work, what variation happens, how it can affect us. We’ve been able to implement design improvements as a result.”

The benefits of information
Digital Trace Manufacturing already helps Nexteer’s quality engineers confirm product quality early in the manufacturing process, “potentially eliminating the need for costly end-of-line testing,” says Hoeg. Moreover, a “smart” system within DTM collects lessons learned and calibrates its decision-making accordingly. This feature helps in predicting potential manufacturing problems and leading people to solve those problems before they become reality. Along with that, the system’s virtual “command center” analyzes the root cause of rejected parts, thereby pointing the way to quick, corrective actions. The command center—“for global manufacturing insights,” points out Hoeg—is available anywhere, anytime within Nexteer.

While the traceability system, PLM, MES and the other information systems that comprise DTM provide individual benefits, Hoeg believes “connecting all of the company’s manufacturing data points into one entity” will provide more enterprise-wide benefits, such as “garner clear, real-time viewpoints of global manufacturing activities; expedite and expand continuous improvements; accelerate design-to-production timelines and enhance global collaboration across Nexteer’s regions and between manufacturing and product engineering divisions; optimize capacities, factory-floor logistics, inventory and planning; and enhance component traceability for advanced quality control, tracking and reporting.” 

Ultimately, Hoeg expects DTM will provide Nexteer with a “dynamic, comprehensive view of its manufacturing operations in real time, which is a big payoff for our customers, employees and shareholders.”