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Integrated systems mean automotive component manufacturer Hydro Raufoss can keep real-time tabs on production, from goods receipt to finished chassis

Shopfloor-to-business system integration is seen as both a costly and complicated task. Yet for much less than £200,000, automotive component manufacturer Hydro Raufoss Automotive has installed a shopfloor data capture system that feeds real-time data to its remotely-located enterprise resource planning (ERP) system and helps eliminate mistakes on the production line. Most of the work was completed within two months.

The system has been running since the beginning of this year and the company has decided to repeat the project at some of its other manufacturing sites, including one in the UK and another in Denmark.

Hydro Raufoss Automotive is a subsidiary of Norway’s Norsk Hydro and makes structural automotive components from aluminium extrusions. It is Europe’s leading supplier of aluminium bumper beams. Worldwide it employs more than 2,300 people and in 1997 its turnover was NKr2.2bn (£174m).

The test-bed for the data collection system was the Hydro Raufoss plant at Worcester, a new factory that was built to assemble the chassis for the Lotus Elise. It was planned from the outset to incorporate this sort of monitoring technology.

One of the main goals of the system is to allow parts to be easily traced, which is essential in the automotive industry, especially for safety-critical components. The company wanted to ensure that it could provide customers with details of the components that had been used to make a chassis as well as the chassis’ production history.

At the same time, Hydro Raufoss wanted IT and administrative support to be kept to a minimum. It envisaged a pure manufacturing facility at Worcester with all transactions from materials receipt to product shipment being recorded automatically. The transactions required to update its ERP system (located 18 miles away at Bromyard) were to be transferred automatically in real-time.

In November last year the company awarded Cheltenham-based Acquisition Solutions a contract to install a system based on VisiBar data collection software. Acquisition Solutions is the European distributor for VisiBar, which was developed by Computer Aided Business Solutions in the US.

`The system at Worcester handles 2-3,000 transactions a day,’ says Phil Sparkes, technical director of Acquisition Solutions. `These are fed to the ERP system in real-time so that the people at Bromyard know immediately – in about a second – what’s happening at Worcester.’

Use of the system starts from goods receipt where each batch of components is given a unique barcode. When the picking operation begins for a chassis, the batch from which each of the 72 main components is drawn is recorded by scanning the label on the container. The barcodes are scanned using hand-held radio frequency devices from Telxon, which are linked to the VisiBar server in Bromyard using a BT Kilostream line.

The system ensures that the components picked are the correct ones by checking against the bill of material in the ERP system. Hydro Raufoss uses an ERP system from Fourth Shift to control the plants at both Worcester and Bromyard, where it makes other car components, including bumper beams. The parts are each assigned a chassis number then released to production, after which the ERP system is updated.

Once a chassis reaches the production line, its progress can be tracked on PCs located at Worcester and Bromyard, which display a graphical representation of the production process and the location of each chassis in the process.

To help make sure each chassis is assembled correctly, the data collection system is loaded with its expected route through seven steps of the production process. At each step, the chassis barcode is scanned to determine whether the previous step was completed correctly.

It is the operator’s responsibility to decide whether the chassis can proceed. `Hydro Raufoss designed the process to make the chassis and we’ve linked its systems to give it all the information needed to make the best decision on whether or not to proceed with manufacture,’ explains Sparkes.

As a final check at the end of the production process, the machine that marks the chassis with its identification number is programmed not to proceed if the chassis has failed any of the production steps.

The main benefit of the system, says Hydro Raufoss, is that it provides a `birth certificate’ for each chassis produced, which gives its production history, the materials used and the test results. Also no staff are required to enter transactions into the ERP system.

The company is now planning to add two further product lines at Worcester. Both will be controlled with similar data collection systems. A project is also under way at Bromyard to add a system to the existing manufacturing facilities.

`It’s not difficult to integrate shopfloor data collection and ERP if you have knowledge of the ERP system,’ says Sparkes. `But one of the problems with such systems is that the interface to the ERP system is complex. It requires data to be manipulated before it can go to the ERP system and that has to be done by IT specialists. VisiBar validates the data in real-time so that it flows directly from the physical activity to the ERP system.’