What Automotive Needs Right Now: Quality Control, Manufacturing Efficiency

April 5, 2010
General Motors is looking to identify and eliminate a range of potential production problems well before they create an issue for its new, highly anticipated electric vehicle, the Chevrolet Volt.

This year will be an important year for the electric vehicle industry as car makers look to develop and launch viable battery-powered transportation solutions. While hybrid gas/electric vehicles have been around for some time, the availability of fully electric passenger vehicles is now just becoming viable for the commercial vehicle market. Many expect rapid growth of this market segment as the green movement continues to accelerate.

Management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. came out with new research in January, following a year-long study suggesting that electric vehicles, including battery-electric and plug-in hybrid electric cars, could make up as much as 16% of new car sales in New York City alone, come 2015, or as many as 70,000 cars.

Among the newest wave of electric vehicles are the Tesla Roadster, Nissan Leaf, Coda, Think City, GM Volt, and the high-end Fisker Karma. These vehicles will provide insight into customer buying patterns, driving behavior and lay the groundwork for a much larger-scale deployment in the future.

As these fundamentally new products come to market, the automotive industry has little room for error when it comes to product safety and manufacturing efficiency.

Recognizing this importance, General Motors is looking to identify and eliminate a range of potential production problems well before they create an issue for its new, highly anticipated electric vehicle, the Chevrolet Volt. A critical issue for GM is that its future economic success will be part of a more environmentally friendly, low emissions world. The production of this new vehicle must be flawless. And, more importantly, consumers need to reach a comfort level with electric power.

Since EVs represent an entirely new technology compared with the current automobiles on the road today, GM will need to forge new supplier relationships and create a new set of quality checks as it pieces together the integral components of the Volt. This requires a fundamentally different approach to manufacturing operations, allowing GM to quickly adapt to evolving market demands and requirements for electric vehicles by implementing new production processes across a distributed manufacturing network.

Cost will be a key piece of the puzzle when it comes to GM's ability to claim success. The manufacturing process will be a fundamental driver of this challenge. Automobile industry analysts suggest that U.S. manufacturers have the potential to halve manufacturing costs in as little as five years. Reducing oversupply, sourcing parts globally and increasing efficiency through their processes and product supply network can help all U.S. automakers reach this tall order.

GM has begun this journey by implementing new software technology from Apriso to manage production and product quality in their new battery assembly plant for the Chevrolet Volt.

The company is expanding its global visibility and control of product quality across the Volt's battery manufacturing processes. But it is the flexibility of the system that has the greatest potential for helping guide GM by easily supporting continuous improvement of product performance and durability.

Technology has significantly impacted the design process for new vehicles in terms of both quality and time-to-market. As GM enters the electric vehicle market, it will work to design the Volt with manufacturing costs in mind from the start. Today's advanced software can quickly transfer product and process designs to manufacturing, contributing to much faster new product introductions. Additionally, complete closed-loop feedback of pre-production and pilot phase production anomalies can be instantaneously reported back to the engineering staff for fast, corrective action. This approach can dramatically reduce the likelihood of a recall while greatly improving the quality of final products.

The move toward electric vehicles creates a manufacturing challenge for the entire auto industry. This could be a tremendous opportunity for the U.S. automotive industry to return to its former glory, accomplished by leveraging new methodologies and principles in design, manufacturing and distribution.

Tom Comstock is Executive Vice President at Apriso http://www.apriso.com/index.htm

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