Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Best Factory I have Ever Seen

That’s not to be taken as an insignificant statement. I’ve spent a lot of time in factories. It’s my job, and my family used to tour factories on vacations. I’ve never tried to count the number of factories I have spent time in, it’s probably under 100, but above 50. Now, to be fair to my evaluation of factories I have never been in an automotive final assembly plant, or a semiconductor factory. I have seen clean rooms where semiconductors can be manufactured, but not the main production factory. 

This factory, the best I have ever seen, why was it so good? I’ll give a few examples. For starters they use a pick-to-light system where the assembler grabs the part from a bin that has a green light on it. The light will go red if he or she tries to pick from the wrong bin. It can be both motion activated or a push button on the light. After picking a part, the computer system will then move onto the next part that needs to be picked. It’s great, I’ve never seen that in another factory. 

Next, there is one particular station on one of their assembly lines where two steel pieces are assembled with a rubber seal in between, and if the rubber seal rolls or is cut, there is no way to tell visually. It may even pass the end of line pressure test. So they use a device to measure the force as the two steel parts come together, and if there is an anomaly they can disassemble the parts and inspect the rubber seal. It’s pretty sophisticated. 

The factory is clean too. Factories have been getting cleaner and cleaner the last decade, but this one just took the cake. I didn’t see any oil or dust around the hard to clean places. On the six inch by twelve inch bins used to store the small assembly parts they used lids over many of the parts to avoid any dust getting on the parts. Plus, it was the best lit factory I can remember, and the air quality inside was fantastic. Now, in the defense of many other factories, there is no welding or heat treating in this factory, so it is easier to keep the air clean. Along those lines, they use DC drivers exclusively for final torques on bolts. That’s not unique, many factories in Germany do the same, forgoing air drivers which are less precise, and create a noisy work environment. Watch videos of the Porsche factory in Germany to get an idea of what I am talking about. 

Finally, near and dear to my heart, they use shims on many of their products. Shims are used to take up a gap between two parts so that they don’t slide back and forth destroying the whole assembly. It is important to have the correct total thickness of shims in a joint. This factory measures the gaps before using any shims so that the number and thickness of shims will be correct. Often factories just guess, or use a standard number of shims. 

Where was this amazing factory? Torreon, Mexico. I must be honest, I have some nationalistic bias to the United States. I feel (or felt) our manufacturing is better than Mexico’s, probably because of all the negative propaganda against Mexico in the United States, yet I have no evidence. After following the UAW negotiations last fall with the big three automakers, assembly for several vehicles getting outsourced to Mexico was a big factor in the discussions. That’s work that the USA is losing to Mexico. I thought moving those factories to Mexico was entirely about the cost of labor. After seeing this factory… I am surprised we don’t move more manufacturing from the USA to Mexico. Certainly this one factory is not representative of the entire country, one new contract employee at the factory told us it was the best factory in Torreon, a big city, and she was very excited to work there. Point being, it reminds me of the question I often ask, “what is possible?” Sure, anything is possible, but seeing what is possible in an industrial setting, in Mexico, not Germany or the United States or South Korea is taking me some time to comprehend. 

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