Automotive journalist John McElroy, on his Speed Channel show "Autoline Detroit", mentioned an interesting bit of fiscal fallout. It seems that automotive suppliers must invest early to design and manufacture parts for new model cars. But they don't get paid until those cars go into production, 2 or 3 years later. So the suppliers have to take out big bank loans to pay for R&D and tooling costs.
But, these loans require that the ultimate paymaster, the auto companies, remain "investment grade" institutions. When GM and Ford's bonds recently lost their "investment grade" rating, the bansk called in the loans from GM and Ford suppliers. This caused a massive cash crunch among GM and Ford suppliers and has pushed some to "the brink of insolvency". McElroy says that the big automakers credit problems have "reverberated" through the auto industry.
Also on "Autoline Detroit", McElroy interviewed Chrysler Executive VP for Manufacturing,Frank Ewasyshyn. Chrysler has developed a way to replace thededicated tooling in their old body shop with new, stronger robots.This eliminates much of the capital cost from dedicated tooling andallows one assembly line the flexibility to manufacturer multiplemodels of cars.
The old body shop had hard tooling, including jigs and large turntables, in fixed places on the assembly line to "frame up" large metal pieces, and then dedicated robotic weld guns to assemble them into car bodies. The assembly line needed a sperate set of hard tooling for each type of car being assembled.
According to Ewasyshyn, over the last five years commodity industrial robots have increased their lift and hold capability from 250-300 kg up to 500-700 kg. Once the commodity robots were strong enough, they could be used in revolutionary new ways.
Two cooperating robots are now strong enough to "frame up" large metal pieces and other robots can do the other elements of the assembly. Commodity robots can lift, hold, weld, glue, and fully assemble the car body, eliminating the need for fixed hard tooling in the body shop.
Because these robots are not dedicated to any particular model of car, they can switch from car model to car model with each different part, or in manufacturing lingo, these manufacturing cells have "a lot size of 1". Chrysler is retooling a plant that currently only makes one kind of car so that it will be able to build three different types of cars in full production volume and one "pilot" model in development volume.
As Exec VP Frank Ewasyshyn puts it,
"This process really uses equipment that's become a commodity. The robots have gotten to the point, and I know the robot industry hates hearing this but, they have really developed this to the point that it's an off the self technology. It's highly reliable, it's highly flexible, the prices have come down significantly, so that (the robot) becomes the commodity."
Ewasyshyn describes how this system was put together,
"So what's happened is that you basically go to, for lack of a better term, the Home Depot of the automotive industry, picking out the parts you need, and putting them together. We don't have the issues we had before. We're not creating anything new. We're using it (existing robots) in a different way. It's not an invention. It's a revolution of what's available in the market today."
These robots are an example of how small change in capability can lead to a large change in outcome. Robots getting stronger was an evolutionary step. Replacing hard tooling is a revolutionary outcome. For the automotive industry, once commodity robots had the strength to handle all the parts of a car body, they reached a "tipping point" and could radially increase the flexibility of the factory.
This process reminds me of the revolution in open source software. Programmers can take existing open source modules and assemble them to quickly create new pieces of software. Chrysler is taking existing commodity robots and using them to quickly assemble new kinds of cars.
For his work at Chrysler, Frank Ewasyshyn won the prestigious 2005 Wu Manufacturing Leadership Award, for advancement's in manufacturing.
A great example is the F-16's tendency to enter a "deep stall" when a ham-fisted pilot pushes the plane well beyond its flight envelope. The F-16 was the first fly-by-wire plane ever manufactured in great quantities, and it relies on constant computer assistance to overcome the inherent aerodynamic instability that gives it such a tremendous edge in terms of maneuverability. Even in straight and level flight, with no input from the pilot whatsoever, the control surfaces of the aircraft make constant, tiny motions to keep the plane flying in a straight line (with everything controlled by the computer).Because the computer is always looking over the pilot's shoulder during maneuvers it makes the F-16 incredibly forgiving to fly. But the downside to this is that it's easy for beginners to get into a situation where their speed is so low that the plane becomes uncontrollable. It doesn't simply stall like most other planes would, quickly dropping their noses and picking up enough speed to give the control surfaces some bite. Instead it enters a "deep stall" where the plane falls like a leaf and the nose gradually pitches up and down as the computer vainly tries to find some angle that will end the stall. This happens in real F-16s, and the only way to get out of it is to manually override the computer, push the stick back and forth in time with the natural motions of the nose, and gradually rock your way out of the stall.