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Ford: Wireless LANs Improve Quality and Efficiency at Truck Plant

Henry Ford's Model T —state of the art in its day — changed the way products were manufactured around the world. Ford's new advanced wireless tracking system builds on the company's reputation for innovative automation technology.

Application: Quality Control Monitoring, Materials Tracking, and Inventory Management
Ford's Kentucky Truck Plant in Louisville is over 4 million square feet in size and produces over 200,000 trucks annually, each a composite of thousands of parts. The plant operates on the world's largest wireless quality control monitoring, product tracking, and inventory management system. Quality control inspectors, forklift operators and clerks, and shipping staff use wireless, pen-based portable teletransaction computers, or PTCs, throughout the manufacturing process.

Before the wireless system was installed, quality inspectors noted defects on forms, and repair people initialed the forms when the repairs were finished. However, errors took hours or sometimes even days to identify and correct, so inspectors often didn't find out about problems with a truck until well after the problems had originated.

Quality Control Monitoring: Ford wanted to keep quality control as simple as possible, so the new system had to involve minimal data entry. In fact, it ended up making the process even simpler. Now, after entering a personal access code into a PTC at the start of a shift, each inspector makes choices from a series of lists displayed on the screen, without writing down anything at all. And all information entered on the PTCs, which can be used anywhere in the manufacturing complex, is transmitted instantly to a central mainframe computer.

At the start of the manufacturing process, each manufactured unit is assigned a serial number. As a unit enters an area of the plant, the inspector's PTC lists the options pertinent to that area and shows which options were ordered for that particular truck. The inspector enters the inspection results for each option - defect or no - on the PTC. Farther on down the assembly line, in the same area of the plant, a quality upgrader's PTC displays the defects to be corrected. The system effectively prevents a unit from being sent on to the next area until the upgrader notes that all defects have been repaired.

Materials Tracking: Ford also applied the wireless LAN to materials tracking: The system tracks every component and box of material that enters the facility to its consumption point on the assembly line.

Inventory Management: The wireless LAN even extends outdoors to the ship-out yard - which often holds more than 1,000 trucks - where PTCs are used for tracking finished product inventory. The wireless system not only tracks every truck's location in the yard, it tells the shipping staff why the truck is there: whether it's scheduled for an engineering change, whether it's due to a third party for aftermarket work or body work, or whether a finance issue must be resolved before a truck can be shipped out.

Benefits: More Competitive Products, Less Paperwork, Better Tracking and Inventory Management
The wireless LAN makes possible a level of quality control that contributed to the successful launch of Ford's F-series trucks. "The system lets us correct problems before components leave their specified area," says Ishmael White, Plant Floor Systems Manager. "We don't wait to go back and correct them later, so we can make repairs more reliably. The system also lets us react very quickly to trends that start to develop - say, where the same error is occurring repeatedly - which saves on the time and cost of repairs. Even in the rare case where a defect isn't discovered until later on, the system lets us trace it back to the area where it originated so that we can find out what went wrong and address the problem."

Because all of the information transmitted over the wireless LAN is collected in real time in a central database, inspectors can get the information they need on the spot simply by querying the database - there's no more need to generate reports or tally inspection forms. Most reporting is done online, too. The result has been a drastic reduction in paperwork.

Finally, the wireless system has dramatically improved both materials tracking and inventory management, reducing the amount of material tied up in manufacturing by two thirds since 1990.

Installation Size
The wireless LAN installation started out serving about 300 plant inspectors and other workers at the Kentucky Truck Plant. Now the number of users at the plant has gone up to 450; two completely redundant wireless networks with a total of 160 access points and antennas guard against downtime. Ford is now implementing wireless LANs at other manufacturing plants and distribution centers worldwide.

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