GM’s Closed Loop Set The Standards For The Industry

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At the General Motors Power Train division, five casting plants pour a total of 26,000 blocks, 26,000 transmission cases, and 40,000 heads each day. The parts aren’t all the same. To make them quickly and accurately requires the most agile technologies available.

From Mike Edington’s perspective, GM accomplishes this by combining one of the world’s best privately owned global networks and home-grown mathematical wizardry with commercially available three-dimensional CAD software, LAN products, and client/server technologies. But Edington, the top IT executive for casting, could easily add a four- letter word to the formula: r-i-s-k–and the company’s willingness to continuously stalk the cutting edge of computer technology.

Now here’s what lies ahead: GM’s developing sensoring devices and special software that will allow it to collect data from each manufacturing cell, measure the performance of each tool or machine in the cell, and chart all of it on a computer in real time.

GM is also planning to replace its costly, proprietary hardware, including computer numerical controllers, with PCs. “Five years from now, we believe every machine that goes into the plant will have a PC-based open modular architecture controller,” says Clark Bailo, manager of advanced controls for GM Power Train, in Pontiac, Mich.

The result is a closed-loop system that will reliably create the same parts without variations. Or, as Edington likes to call it, “real-time virtual quality control.” The data-acquisition portion of the technology is ready to roll out, and the control aspect is still being worked on, he says. The software is object-oriented, with a GUI, and has client/server written all over it.

“The technology is relatively inexpensive,” Edington notes. The real cost is the development work, and that’s where GM may have an advantage. At GM, information management services are provided and supported under contract to EDS Corp. Earlier this year, GM began the process of spinning off EDS as a separate business. Edington is the EDS account manager for casting engineering, which makes him the top IT guy. His GM counterpart is Paul Mikkola, technical director for casting operations.

How well the relations between these groups are going depends primarily on who you talk to. Bailo says he finds EDS staffers “don’t have the right [technical] background to work in the controls arena.” But Edington notes EDS staffers began doing some preliminary work on controller software in 1989.

In any case, GM began these agile manufacturing efforts about seven years ago in the casting area, because that’s where the engine is born, Mikkola says.

It’s been challenging to get to this point. Mikkola notes a lot of the engineers whose expertise predated the technologies rejected the new efforts. In time the barriers were overcome, assisted by increased desktop computing power and younger hires who knew where the future lay. “Without a written strategy of what we wanted, a vision, we could never have gotten there,” Mikkola recalls. “The real key was to do it the old way, do it the new way, and look at the savings.” The old guard soon either became advo cates of the new way or chose to leave.

Edington’s team got involved with casting about two and a half years ago. “As we continue to develop the technology, it will be embraced more and more,” he says.

He’s enthused by an encyclopedia of parts and processes–an object-oriented PC based system running on Unix at present. It allows engineers to take the lessons learned during design and manufacturing, call them up on a PC–through external emulation to the DOS environment–and see exactly how problems were solved. “It gives us a tremendous ability to create a concurrent engineering-manufacturing environment,” he says.

GM’s developing sensoring devices and special software that will allow it to collect data from each manufacturing cell, measure the performance of each tool or machine in the cell, and chart all of it on a computer in real time.

 

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