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An eight-speed transmission developed by ZF Corp. that Chrysler will be producing at its Kokomo Transmission Plant. Process simulation has helped the automaker develop a more efficient production line as part of its world-class manufacturing initiative.

Chrysler Simulates Powertrain Production

Process simulation has helped the automaker develop a more efficient production line as part of its world-class manufacturing initiative.

Brian Harlow joined Chrysler in 1978 as a plant engineer at the Kokomo Transmission Plant in Indiana. He’s been paying a considerable amount of attention to that plant all these years later. That’s because Chrysler Group is launching two new transmissions in Kokomo—an eight-speed rear-wheel drive transmission and a nine-speed front-drive gearbox, both licensed from ZF (zf.com) (and they’re continuing to build a six-speed in Kokomo, as well, although they’ve relocated the line). And because Harlow is now Vice President, Head of NAFTA Powertrain Operations and Global Powertrain Manufacturing Engineering.

Harlow, speaking before a presentation he made at the Center for Automotive Research Management Briefing Seminars (cargroup.org), explains that as he and his colleagues were working at the implementation of the World Class Manufacturing (WCM) system that is largely predicated on practices from Fiat, started looking at the ways and means to improve performance throughout the powertrain manufacturing operations. The goals include zero waste, zero accidents, zero breakdowns, zero waste of motion, and zero inventories. And this includes having safer, more efficient operations.

Back in 2010, Harlow says that one of his colleagues had been recommending that he visit a company based, like Chrysler, in Auburn Hills, MI, Strategic Manufacturing Solutions (SMS). So Harlow paid a visit and met with SMS executive Paul Leskiw, who, Harlow discovered, is a 30-year, retired veteran of GM Powertrain. SMS has a three-dimensional modeling system for modeling plant floor operations. But what was most intriguing to Harlow is that Leskiw understood powertrain, which was certainly valuable from the standpoint of developing a system that could help Chrysler achieve improved operations in Kokomo (and elsewhere, but the goal is Kokomo, as he had two years to get the eight-speed launched), a system that would not be predicated on cool graphics, but on graphics that are informed by actual metalcutting and assembly operations.

Previously, Harlow explained, they’d been using AutoCAD 2D layouts for determining where machinery and automation would be placed on the factory floor. He said that this wasn’t beneficial in terms of being able to discern optimal locations of equipment and to optimize operations.

“We live in three dimensions, not two, so with a two dimensional drawing, you had to imagine the third dimension,” said Harlow. “Engineers have good imaginations, but those imaginations don’t all work the same way. If you have 10 engineers looking at a 2D drawing, they will all see it a little differently.”

He added, “We knew we needed a new way of working in order to get our plants in Kokomo ready at an accelerated pace. By using 3D technology, we are in effect injecting the principles of WCM from the very beginning of our planning for production startups such as the ones in Kokomo.”

The name of the software program is, not coincidentally, Create 3D.

Essentially, what they’ve done for the Kokomo plant is to model the lines, all the way down to providing the appropriate location of racks and material handling so that operators can operate in an ergonomically sound manner. (He refers to a “Golden Zone” for parts presentation, which is a 60° window.) What’s more, the software allows an exploded view of each piece of machinery for purposes of maintenance and repair.

Harlow said that a key benefit of the SMS software is that by doing all of the modeling before equipment is installed—or even purchased—they are able to create better systems from the very start.

“Three-dimensional modeling allows us to make our actual investments as late as possible in the launch process,” said Harlow. “The goal is to make the launch process as vertical as possible because this shortens the time it takes to recover our investment.”

He said that while the launch date would have been the same whether they were using the modeling software or not (the deadline is the deadline), he is confident that the actual launch will be far better: “We installed the whole eight-speed line and there were hardly any changes.”

Because they are working on common processes, he said that they will be able to readily replicate the lines. In cases where there are fairly new engine or transmission programs (e.g., the turbocharged I4 that’s being built at the engine plant in Dundee, MI), they are developing 3D models for them so that if they put in capacity somewhere else in the world, they will be able to readily ramp it up quickly and efficiently.

What’s more, there is also a financial calculator built into the Create 3D program that allows them to (1) determine what the bottleneck process would be should they want to increase output by a set amount and (2) see what investment would be necessary to bust that bottleneck.

The investment at Kokomo for the eight- and nine-speed transmissions, Harlow said, is approximately $1.3-billion. He said that whereas engineering costs for a program like that traditionally run at just less than 4%, with the new simulation capability they are now at 3%.

Better? Faster? “No question,” Harlow responds, definitively.—GSV