GM, Partner Get Plant Humming

By Renee Boucher Ferguson  |  Posted 2004-09-13

GM, Partner Get Plant Humming

General Motors Corp. gets right to the point in its advertisement for H2, the latest version of the mammoth Hummer all-terrain vehicle: "In a world where SUVs have begun to look like their owners, complete with love handles and mushy seats, the H2 proves that there is still one out there that can drop and give you 20."

Its safe to say the company took the same approach to building the H2.

Working in concert with AM General LLC, the company that designs and manufactures the military version called the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, or Humvee, GM took a no-holds-barred approach to building a brand-new Hummer H2 manufacturing plant.

In the enviable position of barely being able to keep ahead of customer demand for Hummers, AM General turned to the systems integration division of GE Fanuc Automation North America Inc. for help in making the new H2 design a reality.

"We took 18 months to go from the green field, or corn field, to assembly plant for the Hummer H2 SUV and SUT [sport utility truck]," said Tim Kurtz, manufacturing systems coordinator for AM General, in Mishawaka, Ind. "Thats a record in the automotive industry to launch a new product line."

With two to three years being the average timeline for designing and implementing an automotive manufacturing plant, AM General and GE Fanuc shortened that significantly with a plan that called for minimal plant system implementation and basic integration with GMs order system.

The two major applications the H2 plant uses are WhereNet Corp.s WhereCall platform and GE Fanucs Cimplicity application, both of which use wireless and RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology for quicker production and process management. In addition to interfacing with each other, those applications also integrate with GMs MGO (Material Global Optimization) and Flexible Scheduling systems to get materials in the plant once an order is placed with GM, in Detroit.

"One of the many things that we experimented with here is, we basically took existing technology, a wire-based technology, and transitioned it to a wireless system," said Kurtz. "Wireless electronic pull systems did not exist before, but most of GM did the wire[-based system]. With WhereNet, we ventured into the wireless world."

Developed using the lean model for manufacturing, the Hummer H2 plant has little excess inventory. Tractor-trailers are backed up to the loading dock—sometimes staying only minutes at a time—inventory is unloaded and allocated to the shop floor on an as-needed basis—and in fairly short order.

Operating on the pull method of inventory replenishment, shop-floor team members low on parts hit a button on the plant floor that alerts a forklift operator, who in turn goes to the loading dock, gets the right parts and delivers them to the right assembler. GE Fanucs Cimplicity software interfaces with WhereCalls Parts Replenishment System and Vehicle Sequencing applications through a client/server configuration that lets shop-floor employees receive the information they need wirelessly—and in real time.

"The main difference comes from the fact that when you are on the production floor, you dont see these kiosks—these locations where, before, forklift drivers would drive to those locales to receive requests," said Marek Pallick, project manager with GE Fanuc, in Charlottesville, Va. "With the terminal, computer screen and keyboard, you would see four or five forklifts lined up for requests. Those lines are gone. Everything is wireless, so the forklift does not belong in an individual location. It saves a lot of time."

At the same time, the RFID WhereTags from WhereNet let each manufacturing station have the correct information about which vehicle they are working on and what options are available for that vehicle.

Next Page: MGO gets materials into the plant.

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The work for AM General, however, starts back at GMs MGO system, according to Jerry Chizum, systems coordinator at AM General.

"MGO is how we get our materials in the plant and relieved from inventory," said Chizum. "Orders go into GM, come down to us, go into MGO, and it schedules its way in the plant."

The order information goes into the Flex application, which tells suppliers how much product to ship on a daily basis. At the same time, the MGO database calculates exactly how much time it will take to have the part in the plant. That functionality, in turn, tells what factors need to go into the system to keep inventory shipped to the plant each day.

For integration to the Flex system, GE Fanuc used the SME2 Sim interface, which allows Flex to communicate directly with Cimplicity and acts as a "strategic front end" to the application, according to Kurtz.

"There was probably a lot of integration work [that GM] did, but we just bought a canned system at GM," said Kurtz.

With the plant up and running smoothly now—it operates two shifts a day, five days a week, producing 74 H2 vehicles each shift—AM General is looking ahead to newer models and newer systems.

"Were already looking at futuristic systems to support the plant floor. Technology changes every day, and we have to be ready to move to stay competitive. The 2007 model will offer a lot of options, [which means] we are going to have a lot more pieces in the plant that will present a lot of challenges for everything," said Kurtz. "The nice thing about the [WhereNet] application is GE Fanuc came in, set up the templates and architecture, so most of the development work will be done by our in-house experts."

The original decision to go with GE Fanuc came down to price, according to Kurtz. AM General went out for three bids, including a design house developer in Detroit, systems integrator Electronic Data Systems Corp. and GE Fanuc.

"[GE Fanuc brought] a vast knowledge of automotive industry experience with automotive suppliers around the world and a partnership with WhereNet. And those helped a lot," Kurtz said.

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