A cutting-edge technology—which could be described as the map app on your phone meets robotics—is  zipping along the floor of a new manufacturing facility in Columbus. France-based automotive supplier Faurecia recently opened its most high-tech facility yet, sparking what the company calls its “digital transformation.” Among the newest technologies deployed on its production floor are Autonomous Intelligent Vehicles (AIVs), which are wheeled robotic carts—just now being introduced to the industry—that make forklifts seem old-fashioned.

The new $64 million Columbus South plant is Faurecia’s third location in the city, and notably different than its predecessors, as it ushers in the company’s Manufacturing 4.0 initiative. The facility was built from the ground up to deploy the industry’s latest advancements in automation, hardware, data processing and connectivity.

“This is our flagship; a lot of our colleagues from around the world will come here and use this as a benchmark as they start to deploy some of the more adaptable [technologies], like touch screens on the lines, all the way up to AIVs,” says Faurecia Clean Mobility North America Operations President Dave DeGraaf.

AIVs, although perhaps not much to look at, have put forklifts out of fashion at Columbus South. They appear to be platforms on wheels with a rack on top to move parts throughout the production floor. The plant has about 24 whizzing around at any given moment; the powerful vehicles travel about 73 miles and make 17,300 pallet moves each day. What can’t be seen is the brains behind this robot.

“Much like the GPS system on your phone—the team programmed the ‘streets’ that are inside the plant, and the AIVs know all of those routes,” says DeGraaf. “They can pick up material and bring it from point A to point B, or they might store it for a while if it’s not needed. They know where all those different points are.”

DeGraaf says Automated Guided Vehicles are more common in manufacturing facilities, but lack the “intelligence” of AIVs.

“If [AIVs] approach an obstacle, they sense it and slow down and either wait for the obstacle to move or stop altogether,” says DeGraaf. “If it takes too long, they’ll go on an alternate path to reach their destination. It’s no different than in your car, when you get into congestion and want to take an alternate route. And it will communicate that to the AIVs behind it until the obstacle is removed.”

In addition to being safer than forklifts, DeGraaf says AIVs increase efficiency and accuracy. The automated system keeps tabs on complex inventory, comprised of a long list of part numbers, and those components arrive at the specified production line more quickly.

“The old methodology would be you’d have to go find that [part] on the shop floor, have somebody bring it to the floor, scan it out and scan it in,” says DeGraaf. “Now, this is all done seamlessly.”

The plant makes Faurecia’s newest emissions control product for the commercial vehicle industry. While the final product weighs in at a hefty 200 pounds, technological advancements within the plant and the product’s design reduced its weight by 50 percent and overall size by 40 percent, compared to the previous generation.

Other advances within the plant are less obvious, but equally powerful. About one-and-a-half miles of cable strung throughout the facility processes a mind-boggling amount of data and helps the plant run seamlessly.

“We collect millions of data points every day,” says DeGraaf. “We have a team led by a statistician that looks at all of this data to make sure everything is operating within the normal parameters. If anything starts to come out of those parameters, it gets into the element of predictive maintenance, so we can get ahead of a potential problem before it becomes an issue.”

A paperless environment and small collaborative robots, called “cobots,” round out the advancements at the plant. Faurecia believes it all adds up to a transformation that puts it “at the forefront of modern-day manufacturing.”

DeGraaf says it has been challenging to find the work force to staff the new high-tech facility.

DeGraaf says the new plant uses large robots and smaller ones, called cobots.

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