Operator-Designed Operations

April 1, 2004
Rick Noe leads a daily search for things to fix at Toyota’s Kentucky Auto plant. Rewards include better safety and ergonomics plus saved time and operating costs.

Toyota’s automobile and engine plant in Georgetown, Kentucky — Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky (TMMK) — has 7.92 million square feet of production and office space. The manufacturer has invested $5.3 billion under roof at the 1,300-acre site.

The challenge

Part of that investment includes a fleet of 289 lift trucks, of which 255 are electric. There are also 299 tuggers, 24 tow tractors, 600 carts and 5,000 stamping pallets. This equipment moves everything from engines and parts to stamping dies. Fifteen battery charging stations service the electric lift trucks and their 900 batteries, as well as the tuggers.

Affordably maintaining and tracking such a large fleet of industrial vehicles, and the staff to support them, requires innovative management.

While the company uses I.D. Systems’ wireless data communications systems for fleet management, along with fleet utilization analysis tools to address the costs and safety issues associated with its material handling equipment, the best information resource for fleet management at TMMK is made of flesh and blood.

To address the company’s philosophy of continuous improvement, Rick Noe, group leader, established a task force of lift truck operators who met once a week for six months to assemble ideas and suggestions for the supplier of the plant’s lift trucks, Toyota Material Handling, U.S.A., Inc.

The innovations

Noe is responsible for matching material handling equipment to various processes in the plant. In specifying the equipment needed to support the Kentucky operations, Noe went beyond simply asking for input. Each operator was instructed to list his concerns within his processes. This task force produced a collection of innovative ideas, which were then designed into the industrial vehicles. Even when there are no apparent needs, Noe wants his people looking for them.

"Sometimes we’ll assign a project to find something to improve," he says. "If we don’t get a lot of ideas from a group, I’ll ask it to identify something, no matter how small or large, to make it better. We hope we’ve instilled the mindset to look for these opportunities, but we will ask if we have to. There’s always something we can improve for our people."

Lift trucks provide one such opportunity. First, Noe’s group worked on ways to make seats more comfortable. Up to 80 percent of driving is in reverse, due to TMMK’s facilities and operations, which could have led to neck and shoulder strain. In response, the team, working with Toyota Material Handling engineers, helped to create a 20-degree-swivel seat option. (This swivel seat option is now available to other customers as well.) The weight of the seat hood on electric lift trucks was reduced, so lifting the hood to change the battery is easier. Next, a hood lift assist was added, using a torsion bar with shock absorbers like those under a car’s hood.

Operators noted that in loading soft-sided trailers from both sides, lift truck headlights tended to blind drivers on the opposite sides, so dimmer switches were designed into new lift trucks. Next, an additional horn button was installed on lift truck arm rests so drivers can sound the warning while in reverse. To accommodate shorter lift truck operators, team members recommended adjustable pedals to replace the foam blocks that operators were attaching to accelerator and brake pedals.

Smoothing out the ride for the operator was another target. Noe and his team are looking at various tire compounds for the best shock absorption.

The standup tuggers in Noe’s fleet don’t have suspensions, so his team is looking at designing floating floors as well as coming up with new tire compounds. Noise is another target.

"The material handling carts that go through the plant can be very loud," Noe continues. "We’re doing decibel testing and established a standard on how noisy they can be. The first trial was on our gondola carts, which are big steel boxes on wheels. If they go through the plant empty, every little crack in the floor was just like beating a drum. We identified some shock-absorbing casters and wheels. We also put a dampener between the caster and the body. We went from an average of 86.5 decibels to 80. That’s a 500 percent improvement, considering a decibel is like a factor of 10. We’re also working with our logistics group on the packaging of parts. If you have metal parts contacting each other as they go through the plant, the noise is terrible. We’re working on spacers and holders to reduce that noise."

The Wireless Asset Net system helps TMMK comply with vehicle safety regulations and enhances fleet management by providing vehicle locator capabilities, automated electronic vehicle inspection checklists, and impact sensors to establish driver accountability and reduce the costs of abusive driving.

Noe and his staff plot usage of lift trucks hourly, each day. They can see, for example, that Department A uses a lift truck two hours every morning and Department B uses a lift truck three hours every afternoon. This allows for better utilization management.

The system has a sensor that is set to record shock/G-force, together with information about who’s operating the equipment and where he is. This amounts to better accountability, which will save a projected $115,000 in damage to lift trucks per year.

Basic battery tracking, one of Noe’s ideas currently in the trial phase, puts an identifier on each battery in the form of a tethered fob, so the system can track the truck, the operator and the battery. Operators change their own batteries, but in the past weren’t able to determine which is the best battery, taking into account the charge period or cooling period. So a driver could take a battery that’s too hot.

Now, a server looks at all batteries, gives the operator two choices and informs him or her which charger and which battery to choose. The operator doesn’t have to waste time looking among many batteries and stations.

In addition, preventive maintenance is performed on approximately 200 batteries a month. Formerly, the last five days of each month could be spent driving from charging station to station looking for batteries. Once fully implemented, there will be no time wasted searching for batteries.

The results

Projected savings for the changes Noe has put in place:

• 2,500 fewer hours per year searching for batteries;

• 150 hours per year saved by using a paging system;

• 1,650 hours saved using a vehicle locator;

• 950 hours per year saved using an automatic maintenance report;

• 450 hours per year saved by using automatic license and access control.

All this is in addition to gains in battery life, which is extended by not charging when still hot or not fully charged.

Rick Noe conservatively expects a full cost payback from these improvements in three years, and over 10 years he expects to save $8 million.

Additional cost savings will result from reducing his lift truck fleet. To accomplish that, Noe’s team is developing a series of carts pulled by home-made AGVs. The carts will interface with and automatically feed lineside racks supplying assembly operations. Each AGV is crafted out of tubing, a car battery and a little motor — not only less costly than a lift truck, but far less costly than an automatic guided vehicle. "An AGV would be about $75,000 and we built this for about $800," Noe says.Another method of lift truck reduction will be achieved by replacing some lift trucks with tuggers. "The tuggers cost less than lift trucks and there’s less upkeep," Noe explains. "These tuggers will eventually have laser-guidance capability for both attended and unattended operation.

"They’ll pull to lineside and dispense automatically. This lends itself to sequencing the correct parts to the line at the appropriate time. Instead of bringing a box of 1,000 parts that will last two or three production days, we’d rather bring groups of different parts to areas as they’re needed. And if a problem develops in production we won’t have thousands of parts sitting somewhere where they’ll be no good." MHM

Material Handling Suppliers

I.D. Systems, (wireless fleet management system), www.id-systems.com

Toyota Material Handling, U.S.A., Inc., (lift trucks), www.toyotaforklift.com

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