Believe it or not, South America has long been a test bed for new auto production ideas.
Volkswagen AG has suppliers in some of its factories, and General
Motors Corp. has a supplier park surrounding its plant in Gravataí,
Brazil. But analysts say no automaker has gone as far as Ford.
"South America is kind of the global sandbox for a lot of automakers to
try out new methods," said Michael Robinet, vice president of global
vehicle forecasts for CSM Worldwide. "Ford was able to think out of the
box, and it's paying off for them."
Yes, Ford. The Camaçari facility in Bahia, Brazil is a remarkable plant from a variety of perspectives, although there is one glaring problem that I'll discuss later.
This state-of-the-art manufacturing complex in the northeastern
Brazilian state of Bahia is not only the centerpiece of Ford's
Brazilian turnaround plan, it is also one of the most advanced
automobile plants in the world. It is more automated than many of
Ford's U.S. factories, and leaner and more flexible than any other Ford
facility. It can produce five different vehicle platforms at the same
time and on the same line.
Ford sources said it is the sort of
plant the company wants in the United States, were it not for the
United Auto Workers, which has historically opposed such extensive
supplier integration on the factory floor.
I generally believe that unions are the result of pathetic management, but the inflexible work rules have created severe problems for the manufacturers. This facility shows what can happen with a little flexibility.
At Camaçari, more than two dozen suppliers operate right inside the
Ford complex, in many cases producing components alongside Ford's main
production line. Having those supplier operations on-site allows Ford
to take the concept of just-in-time manufacturing to a whole new level.
Inventories are kept to a bare minimum, or dispensed with entirely.
Components such as dashboard assemblies flow directly into the main
Ford assembly line at the precise point and time they are needed.
Sounds pretty slick. Let's learn more.
The system also helps with quality. If there is a problem with a
part, it is a simple matter for Ford engineers to trace it to its
source and work with the supplier to correct it.
simultaneous supply chain," said Edson Molina, logistics general
manager for Ford South America. "When you have a problem, everybody
works together to solve it."
Must take quite a bit of training investment. Yep.
Most have no industrial experience when they hire on at Camaçari, so
each worker receives about 900 hours of training. Much of that time is
spent working on a scaled-down version of the real assembly line that
was built just for that purpose.
Unlike many U.S. auto plants,
where workers' responsibilities are strictly limited to specific job
classifications, workers like Silva dos Santos are encouraged to learn
as many different skills as possible.
There's a lot more meat in that article, but now let's switch gears to the troubling aspect. You got a hint of it
above, but take a look at this video tour of the facility, especially the section beginning about 30 seconds into it. The photo on the right probably hints at my problem. I'll try to transcribe:
The Ford plant is more automated than any of Fords other plants. There are more robots here than in most U.S. plants.
That concept is seen as a positive. Is it?
When I visited Toyota's Kyushu, Japan facility last month, as well as several other Japanese factories, robots and automation was seen as a negative. In fact, they went out of their way to talk about how robots are only used in dangerous or physically difficult situations. Why? Because a fundamental reason why they have become so productive has to do with improvement ideas.
People generate ideas, robots don't. Over time the productivity improvement from new ideas easily overtakes the one-time improvement from automation. This is why companies that realize there's value in the brain attached to the hands will succeed, while companies that think of the pair of hands as a cost will not.
The Ford Camaçari facility is very efficient and competitive now. Will it be in ten years?