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Mark Symonds

FDA Compliance

Part Tracking Keeps Suppliers/Customers Happy

How do you manage 15,000 parts?

Published: Monday, June 15, 2009 - 23:00

It’s no secret to anyone, anywhere, that we’re experiencing a global business challenge, especially in manufacturing.

One could argue that for too long, manufacturers in the United States have been complacent and indifferent to signs of market change, steadily losing market share to offshore businesses that were more productive and efficient.

The automobile industry could be considered the poster child for this trend. Where once U.S. automobile manufacturers were the preeminent brands, they’ve now been overtaken by competitors that adopted—and improved upon—the manufacturing processes developed in the United States.


The push to improve quality, reduce waste, and cut costs is a relentless constant in the automotive industry. However, the actual picture is different from common misperceptions. It’s true that many world-class automobile manufacturers thrive in places other than Europe and North America. It’s also true that automobile manufacturers, by adopting lean manufacturing principles and rigidly adhering to stringent quality control requirements, can provide a blueprint that all manufacturers, regardless of industry, can follow to achieve a consistently high level of quality. The familiar maxim of “do more with less” forces companies to leverage technology to maximize their resources and remain competitive in a global economy.

How the automotive industry drove from there to here

Henry Ford started production of the Model T in 1908. It was the first mass-produced vehicle to be manufactured on an assembly line. In the first month, only 11 cars were produced. Six years later, it took just 93 minutes to produce a car. Ford continued to manufacture Model Ts until 1927, when Model T No. 15 million rolled off the production line. The quest for constant improvement and refinement of the manufacturing process remained continuous and enthusiastic.

Despite numerous changes in the Model T from 1908 to 1927, a catalog list of parts for all Model Ts produced in that era contained just 2,500 parts. Compare that with the modern automobile, which typically consists of at least 15,000 disparate parts. It’s apparent that as vehicles became more complex, a system was needed to efficiently manage this increasingly complicated system.

The automotive manufacturing solution

Enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems entered the production picture around 1990, when the need to coordinate various components of modern auto manufacturing became obvious. ERP systems are cross-functional and enterprisewide; they encompass modules that address many aspects of the enterprise: customer orders, procurement, inventory control, accounting, finance, and human resources.

ERP alone proved insufficient to manage operations in a high-precision, high-liability industry such as automotive. New systems have evolved to capture everything that happens on the shop floor in real time. Workers know instantly if a bad part is produced and can take corrective actions. Purchasing and customer service staffs have constant access to inventory levels as items make their way through the supply chain and the manufacturing process. Product recalls can be small and precise instead of massive and expensive.

A reasonable expectation

Consumers, as well as the government and judicial system, have a reasonable expectation of increasingly higher quality standards and reasonable levels of corporate responsibility.

Today’s integrated information technology solutions create digital databases that chronicle all decision making regarding production processes. This information can be accessed by lawyers looking for production rationales as well as by companies researching warranty issues.

Tracing the flow of lots and components used in manufacturing operations—commonly referred to as “traceability”—is vital to all industries that must comply with strict quality mandates and meet governmental regulations. Technological solutions allow automotive companies to easily track and retain historical information related to production, inspection, genealogy, and usage. This helps reduce recalls due to faulty parts or processes.

NHK Spring Precision of America

Consider the challenge faced by NHK Spring Precision of America Inc., a division of the Japanese NHK Spring Co. Ltd. located in Louisville, Kentucky. It produces small engine springs for the automotive industry. Its springs were meeting strict production quality requirements, but the company sought to ensure there were no problems with loading the springs for shipping to the manufacturer. Human error could place the wrong spring in the cases, or not properly space the components, which would interfere with robots’ ability to pull the springs consistently from the shipping container. A simple error could potentially cost the company tens of thousands of dollars to correct and could negatively affect its relationship with an important customer.

The temporary solution was to hire outside quality inspectors and dedicate internal personnel to double- and triple-check cases before shipment—an expensive preventive measure that still didn’t guarantee an error-free packing process.

The true solution was arrived at by I/Gear Inc., a Louisville, Kentucky-based software company that provides machine middleware and machine connectivity solutions to the manufacturing industry. It fabricated a vision system that integrates with the ERP solution, Plex Online, to ensure proper spacing and spring type. (NHK manufactures four different spring types that are identified by specific colors.) The system’s error-proofing protocol prevents the shipping of mixed parts or misaligned products—costly errors that could interrupt the manufacturing process.

After the crates are loaded with springs, the vision system developed by I/Gear takes an image and sends it to the ERP system to visually confirm that it’s accurate and provide a success confirmation before shipping to the manufacturer. Using this process, NHK has eliminated the need for additional quality inspectors and ensured a consistently acceptable product for its customers.

“Since we introduced the vision system for checking the quality of springs prior to shipping to the customer, we have had zero defects and eliminated the necessity for expensive fixes,” says Mark Doyle, vice president of sales at I/Gear.

An added benefit of the vision system is the ability to store images of product shipments to refute claims, should they occur. Figure 1 illustrates the workflow that occurs before the shipment is approved for sending to the customer.


Figure 1: Work Flowchart Prior to Shipment Approval


Magna Powertrain’s New Process Gear

Another auto parts manufacturer, Magna Powertrain, had a different challenge at its New Process Gear (NPG) & Engineering Center in East Syracuse, New York. With more than 30 systems monitoring various aspects of internal quality processes, the system had grown awkward and cumbersome. As the number of systems proliferated, it became a time-consuming task to gather all the needed data to analyze a specific situation and determine where improvements could be made. NPG quickly discovered the benefits of an on-demand manufacturing performance system that combines the capabilities of ERP, manufacturing execution systems, quality management, customer relationship management, shop-floor integration, and much more. This integrated solution enabled NPG to closely track and manage critical aspects of its operation from anywhere, at anytime.

For example, the problem-control system the company now uses includes a comprehensive supplier portal that has helped improve the flow of information across its supply chain. The portal allowed NPG and its suppliers to communicate in real time about quality and delivery issues. Suppliers can upload their current certifications and review NPG’s supplier policies on the company’s web site.

After implementing the problem-control system module, NPG automated its process for requesting and evaluating the submissions of suppliers’ production part approval process (PPAP)—a quality tool to determine if all customer engineering design and specification requirements are understood by the supplier and that the process has the potential to produce product consistently, meeting these requirements during the actual production run at the quoted production rate. The problem-control module allows buyers, suppliers, and quality managers to work from the same list of PPAP requests. Enabled suppliers can submit their PPAPs more quickly, NPG’s quality managers are instantly notified, and all parties can view the time-stamped workflow.

The end result is a more efficient process and greater satisfaction for the 400-plus direct suppliers and quality managers that can easily access accurate and comprehensive data in a real-time environment.

“Suppliers like the system, even when it points out problems in their products,” says Greg Palmer, a quality engineer with NPG. “Obviously, suppliers aren’t going to be thrilled about activities leading to possible cost recoveries,” says Palmer. “But with this module in place, they feel confident that the information feeding into these decisions is accurate, reliable, and trustworthy, and if it isn’t, they have the ability to dispute the charges within the system.”

Traceability to the rescue

Providing solutions to challenges has always meant opportunity for a Michigan-based company that was able to address the pain points, ByTec Inc. ByTec knew of an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) that was encountering vexing warranty claims because of frequent problems with a specific outsourced drive shaft component—the unitized center bearing (UCB). The UCB is a combination bearing and vibration-damping device that bolts to the frame of rear-wheel-drive vehicles, limiting drive shaft bowing and vibration. It’s critical for reducing noise and vibration in the passenger compartment. The UCB presented a unique challenge because it has five parts that come from five separate vendors, each of which are crucial to the assembly’s functionality.

The OEM was looking for a UCB supplier with a strong traceability system. ByTec promised to deliver a system that provided every UCB with a unique identity with part serialization and bar coding, complete with component tracking and full traceability back through the entire process. With this system, the OEM could access and easily identify where and when a production problem occurred, down to the machine and operator that made the part.

In less than a year, the quality performance, as measured in parts per million defective, was reduced from more than a thousand with the previous supplier, to six parts per million with ByTec using Plex Online’s quality module.

Pride of quality

Traceability and quality control have been tremendous boons for the automotive industry and have helped organizations embrace lean manufacturing principles while also minimizing defects and reducing warranties and expensive recalls.

The automotive industry has many things of which it can be proud in addition to the flashy products speeding down the road and across rugged terrain. The technology solutions that help make those journeys as safe and cost-effective as possible heads the list. Irrespective of the recent reorganization of the Big Three in Detroit, quality is an enduring hallmark of the industry.

It’s a production model that’s adopted by all manufacturers, from aerospace and defense to food and beverages to medical device manufacturing.

It’s the car and truck OEMs and parts manufacturers leading the way for all manufacturers.


About The Author

Mark Symonds’s picture

Mark Symonds

Mark Symonds is president and CEO of Plex Systems Inc. Plex Systems is the developer of Plex Online, a software-as-a-service (SaaS) solution for manufacturers. Plex Online offers industry-leading features for virtually every department within manufacturing. Its fully-integrated models deliver a “shop floor to top floor” view of a manufacturer’s operations. Founded in 1995 as Plexus Systems Inc., the company is headquartered in Auburn Hills, Michigan, with customers around the globe. More information is online at www.plex.com.