You can have a car in any colour, as long as it’s electric
With the vehicle manufacturer officially punting an electric future, Gary Redmond, Ford’s Southern Africa’s director of IT, believes there are many fresh opportunities to innovate.
For years, Henry Ford tried to up productivity across his manufacturing facilities. Realising that he could produce more vehicles if he made his processes more efficient, he had workers arrange the different car parts on the floor and with the vehicle under construction on skids, they dragged the car down the line of parts as they worked.But it still took around half a day to build a single car.
Later, he broke down the assembly process of the Ford Model N (the predecessor to the famous Model T) into 84 different steps and then trained each worker to do one of the steps. He even hired a motion-study expert to make sure that each of these singular jobs was as methodical as possible. But he wasn’t happy. Ford knew that he could create a more efficient manufacturing process.
In 1913, he debuted the first moving assembly line for the mass production of automobiles. Inspired by the production methods used in breweries, flourmills and industrial bakeries, this innovation has been described as the single greatest manufacturing invention the automobile industry has ever seen. The new process reduced the amount of time it took to build a car from over 12 hours to just over 90 minutes. This reduction in production time meant that he could reduce the cost of his cars and make a profit.
Once you’ve got the wheels and the battery fitted, the vehicle can easily move itself along the assembly line.Gary Redmond, Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa
Today, Ford is innovating again. This time, it’s bringing electric vehicles to American customers at scale with the launch of the largest, most advanced and efficient auto production complex in its 118-year history. While this electric push will likely take a few years to trickle down into the local market, Gary Redmond, Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa’s IT director, believes that the move presents some incredible opportunities to further streamline the brand’s manufacturing processes. Responsible for the IT operations at manufacturing facilities everywhere except North America, China and Europe, Redmond looks after the day-to-day running of operations at facilities that produce Ford cars.
“We want to be one of the leaders of the electric vehicle revolution. Looking at the manufacturing side of the business, this is a big move because it totally changes how we assemble vehicles,” he says. “Instead of having a production line where vehicles are hooked up and carried down a conveyor, once you’ve got the wheels and the battery fitted on an electric car, the vehicle can easily move itself along the assembly line. I believe this is the next big change in our industry.”
Redmond says Ford doesn’t install new technologies without a strong business case. “We don’t want to deploy things just for the sake of it. Normally, we look at what’s available, what the potential benefits could be and then explore how this solution can improve throughput, safety and quality.”
Currently, the industrial Internet of Things, AI, machine learning, as well as virtual and augmented reality are making the most impact at Ford. “All of these tools allow us to monitor and better manage our processes so that we know exactly what’s being done on the plant floor and where there’s potential to improve.”
Redmond gives the example of a technician at one of Ford’s dealerships struggling to resolve an unusual issue with a car. They could put on their augmented reality headset and connect with the team at head office, which could guide this technician around what needs to be checked or changed in order to fix the problem.
Another example of these emerging tech solutions in action is the use of AI and machine learning to help inspectors check vehicles for any imperfections or ‘misbuilds’. “So the AI will be able to pick up if a Ford Ranger has accidentally been fitted with the wrong tyres or mirrors and rectify the mistake early.”
Reminiscent of Henry Ford’s manufacturing efficiency drive, Redmond mentions that the company also makes use of smart ‘kitting’ stations to streamline the build process. These automated vehicles are filled with the parts needed for a particular car and move down the production line with the car as it’s being assembled. What makes these kitting stations even smarter is that the parts are fitted with sensors or RF tags that light up as the operator on the floor needs them so that workers can find parts without having to search for them. “And all of this is monitored by our new factory information system, which keeps track of whether or not the facility is meeting its targets and flags any issues or stoppages so that we can improve quality and employee satisfaction.”
For customers, a digital innovation is the FordPass Connect app, which provides users with a range of connected services. “It digitally transforms how customers interact with our vehicles,” he says. “Through the app, you can remotely lock and unlock your vehicle. Or, if you’re leaving home or work in five minutes and it’s particularly hot or cold outside, you can use the app to remotely start your car and get the air conditioner or heater going.”
With innovation and the introduction of new technologies, there will always be hurdles around change management, acknowledges Redmond. “We’re taking our staff with us through this digital transformation, but we’ve found gaps that demand our attention. To address these, we run intense workshops and on-the-job training, so the staff is comfortable with the technology, know what they’re doing and undertake everything according to how it was designed.”
* This feature was first published in the March edition of ITWeb's Brainstorm magazine.