Automating the Automotive Industry

Nov. 1, 2009
A barcoding system improves operations for automotive supplier Trelleborg.

Barcode technology has helped revolutionize the automotive industry by providing fast and accurate inventory and shipping information to pass among trading partners throughout the supply chain. However, just because a manufacturer has deployed barcode scanners in its facilities doesn't mean the technology is being used effectively.

Trelleborg Automotive Americas has been scanning barcodes in its factories for several years, but its disparate shipping and receiving systems were outmoded and operated independently of each other. What's more, production staff still relied on paper tickets to track work in process. Thanks to a new end-to-end scanning solution, however, the company has improved efficiency and accuracy, while providing real-time production data and lot traceability.

Trelleborg Automotive Americas is part of Trelleborg AB, a global supplier to automotive, aerospace, construction and other industries. The Americas division is primarily a rubber injection operation that makes anti-vibration parts (such as engine mounts and hydro bushings) for automotive OEMs like Ford and GM, as well as suppliers such as TRW and Delphi.

The company had already deployed stand-alone barcode scanning systems in its receiving and shipping departments, but those solutions were not integrated with each other and were becoming outdated.

“We wanted to take the barcode system to the next level, have some lot traceability and get rid of our manual paperwork,” explains John Jacobs, IT developer at Trelleborg. “We wanted to go from receiving back to shipping with a complete electronic system.”

The company also wanted to replace its manual job tickets with a barcoding system. “Before, there was a paper system where operators would record all of the traceability information, the parts they made, what kind of scrap was generated and what machine they were on. That information went into the ERP system,” Jacobs says. Operators on the factory floor had to manage these tickets and record production information by hand, in addition to running their machines.

Trelleborg decided to deploy a barcoding system that integrated with its existing AS400-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. The company also wanted to be able to develop and expand the barcoding system using internal resources to keep costs low.

Tracking the Production Process

The barcoding system allows Trelleborg complete visibility, from the time raw material arrives at the plant until finished goods are shipped out to customers.

As raw material arrives at the dock door, employees in the receiving area scan the barcoded labels on the boxes using mobile computers with integrated scanners. Once received, materials are stored in one of several warehouses located at each plant.

“We use the barcode serial number on the box for lot traceability,” Jacobs says. “Once the material is scanned, the system tells us which one of our warehouses it goes into.”

Before being stored, though, the material goes through a quality-control check process. The quality department receives a report as soon as material arrives, which has condensed the time it takes for materials to be released for the QC check. “The box can't go any further without that quality-control check,” Jacobs says.

Once an order for materials comes up from the production floor, lift truck drivers retrieve the material from the warehouse. According to Jacobs, the retrieval process is largely a visual system, as the barcode scanning solution isn't currently used to manage inventory in the warehouses.

Team leaders on the plant floor scan a barcoded job worksheet, which retrieves the bill of material from the AS400. “Operators at that point know all the material that has to be at the press, and they scan the boxes of material that come from the warehouse,” Jacobs says. “The system won't let them proceed until they have scanned all the material they need.” Trelleborg uses label printers and laser printers to produce its shipping labels and job sheets.

Products are put into their final shipping boxes on the plant floor as they are manufactured. “As a job is finished, we scan the boxes to collect data on the finished goods and the scrap,” Jacobs says. “The barcoding system updates our ERP system immediately.”

The finished goods then go through a final quality-control audit, a process that now goes much more quickly, thanks to the scanning system.

“Under the old system, auditors would have to scan each box as it was palletized,” Jacobs says. “Now, because we scan everything on the plant floor, they don't have to do that. The system validates that there are 72 boxes for the pallet, and they do the quality-control check.”

Once the boxes move into the shipping area, staff scan the boxes against the shipment information to validate the right boxes are going into the right truck, and Trelleborg issues an electronic advance shipping notice (ASN) to its customers.

Trelleborg piloted the solution in its Sandusky, Mich., plant, and has since deployed it at two locations in Morganfield, Ky., as well as at a second location in Sandusky.

Staff in the receiving area only required minimal training, since they had been using a similar system already. “In production, these people had never seen the scanners,” Jacobs says. The production staff had longer training sessions. “That was really good because the users suggested improvements during the training, and we could implement them quickly using the barcoding system. Since I was able to become expert with the system in a short time, the changes were implemented within hours while we were still doing the training,” he adds.

Operational Improvements

Trelleborg has seen significant improvements in accuracy and efficiency since deploying the end-to-end barcode system. The company has cut its physical inventory effort by 50% by replacing the manual system.

“It was extremely labor intensive and mistake prone, because everything was handwritten, and we'd have to interpret that after everything was done,” Jacobs says.

Operators on the plant floor no longer have to manage the paper job tickets and can concentrate on their work. “We build a full skid of product as finished goods are made,” Jacobs says. “It used to take 10 hours to fill one skid of product, but now, it takes less than eight hours.”

He says that inventory adjustments at the pilot facility are down, as well. “We found some machinery on the floor that was miscounting product, and we were able to catch those mistakes and fix the problem.”

Shipping accuracy has also improved. “We've caught mistakes like the wrong product being scanned, and we've stopped some raw material from being shipped out the door,” Jacobs says. “The system alerts you right away if you've got the wrong box. We've definitely seen improvements there.”

The IT staff can also easily take the barcoding solution offline without disrupting any operations to work on the ERP system or run reports. This functionality also keeps things running smoothly if the back-end system should happen to go down unexpectedly.

“If our system goes offline, the users don't have to sign off or even know the system went down,” Jacobs says. “They just keep working.”

Trelleborg operates eight plants, and Jacobs says the company plans to roll the system out at additional facilities in Michigan, Illinois and Mexico. Eventually, the system will allow Trelleborg to track raw material usage during production.

“We'll be able to watch how much material we're actually using, compared to what the bill of material says we should be using,” Jacobs says. The barcoding system will also help the company compare the overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) of its machines during production, which will improve efficiency even further and allow for preventive maintenance.

Brian Albright is a freelance writer for Manchester, N.H.-based Spectrum Marketing & Communications.

This article was developed in conjunction with Adrian, Mich.-based Integrated Barcoding Systems, provider of QuikTrac barcode software.

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