You would think automotive engineers are fans of all the sophisticated automation that helps them produce their products. But one Detroit-based Ford production line manager I know would take simple over sophisticated every time. I spoke with him for background while researching our Automotive Industry Report to appear in MH&L's February issue. We got to speaking about his job—making transmissions—and the material handling systems that support his occupation.
Robots provide a lot of that support, but this engineer is more impressed by the engineering that went into the design of the wire baskets presenting transmission components to these robots than with the robots themselves. It took engineering artistry to design these baskets to suit the precision movements of the robots.
This engineer worked with Salco Engineering and Manufacturing of Jackson, Michigan, to redesign one of this vendor's standard wire baskets so it could better interface with this Ford plant's robots. The basket had to be precisely engineered so the robotic arm could pick up a part from the basket or place a part into it. Simple. But it represents the kind of problem-solving process that makes engineering one of the world's most respected professions. Engineers are unsung heroes of the corporate bottom line. They often find savings their CEOs didn't know were possible.
“Like they say in the restaurant industry, the money's in the corners—the pots and pans,” this Ford engineer told me. “Little things can make you or break you. This basket design change was a great thing because you do it and don't have to think about it for the next seven years. You never know how much money you might have spent trying to de-bug this handling problem. Salco made suggestions on size and orientation based on what they knew would and wouldn't work.”
This guy loves things that stay fixed. That means he's not in love with companies that constantly evolve their technology to the point of perpetual obsolescence. In fact his philosophy is that better can become the enemy of good.
“I need something good, reliable and long-term, and some technology companies are always making something better,” he added. “I don't know if it's because we're Ford and they think we should always be getting something new and trying it out for the rest of the world.
If you're thinking this guy sounds like a Luddite, let's look at the definition:
“The Luddites were a social movement of British textile artisans in the nineteenth century who protested--often by destroying mechanized looms--against the changes produced by the Industrial Revolution, which they felt were leaving them without work and changing their entire way of life.”
It might be tempting to apply that label to this guy, considering the role labor unions play in the automotive industry. But if you're a technology supplier, remember, this guy is your customer—as are many of the people who read this blog and respond to it. I welcome you and your customers to weigh in on what our friend from Ford had to say. Does his ode to an engineered basket resonate with you or does it belong in another kind of basket—a circular one?