Larry Hinkle has been the plant manager at the Visteon Climate Control Systems plant in Connersville, Indiana, for one week when we visit. The learning curve for this industry vet will undoubtedly be short, but the amount he will need to learn is vast: the plant, which employs some 3,200 people, covers 1.7-million square feet. Within, they're producing radiators, condensers, evaporators, compressors, accumulator/hose assemblies, and modules (i.e., radiator/condenser/shrouding). As at least one of these products are used in all Ford and Lincoln Mercury vehicles produced in North America—and they also ship to Ford operations in Europe, Australia, and South America—it is very easy to understand that Connersville is extensively about high-production operations. As in annual rates of over 3 million radiators, 5.6 million evaporators, 4.2 million compressors...
But things are changing for this venerable production plant, a plant that has its roots in 1915, when it was the operation of the Rex Buggy Company (yes, horse-drawn carriages), which gave way to the Rex Manufacturing Company (manufacturer of the Empire automobile), which transitioned into the manufacturer of refrigerators and freezers in the 1930s. Appliances were a mainstay until 1977. By 1979, the facility, which was now part of the Ford Motor Company (post-Rex it had been owned by Philco, which was acquired by Ford in '63), was producing copper-brass radiators (which have since given way to aluminum), then came condensers, evaporators... and the rest.
Things are changing for a number of reasons.
For one thing, Visteon is an independent company, one that is no longer part of Ford. The change happened in June, 2000. This means that the people in Connersville are looking for more opportunities to provide their products to manufacturers that aren't exclusively badged with the Blue Oval. They have forthcoming business with Saturn and Nissan. They are looking for more work to put in the plant.
While they have been providing some products to the aftermarket, this has mainly been to the aftermarket as represented by the Ford dealer network. But now they are working to supply a wider array of aftermarket concerns, be they distributors, rebranders or direct-sales outlets. While their automotive customers have comparatively set schedules, the aftermarket retailers don't have the same type of forecasts: months give way to weeks—or even days.
All of which means that Visteon Connersville people have to start thinking about manufacturing in the context of quick-turnarounds, not as an exception (let's face it: all companies have to do some expedit-ing at some point, even if their work is planned long in advance), but more as part of their day-to-day activities.
As Charlie Bishop, manager, Process Improvement, puts it, "The aftermarket business doesn't want 250,000. They want 100."
The company is achieving lots more aftermarket business for its climate control products, from distributors and retailers alike. And one suspects that they're learning more than a little something by providing aluminum radiators to C&R Racing, which, in turn, provides these performance products to the majority of NASCAR racing teams. (Given the decorations on many of the walls within the plant, it is evident that NASCAR figures dominantly in the interests of the people in the plant.)
But the plant, by and large, is capacitized for the bigger numbers. "Cross-loading is tough," Bishop observes, "when you have dedicated equipment."
So what are they doing to address this situation?
Well, for one thing, they have established a cell for low-volume radiator core production. This two-worker cell is currently tooled to produce 10 different modules, with cores ranging in length from 10 to 40 in. This is a far cry from the 25 automated core builders that operate with a rat-a-tat-tat efficiency once they have been manually loaded/unloaded. While there will undoubtedly be a place for automated equipment for the foreseeable future, Hinkle says that they are talking to machinery builders about providing "simple" equipment, yet some of those machinery builders seem to have a difficult time understanding what is being asked for when the bells and whistles aren't being speced.
Another thing is looking for the ways to become lean, which tends to provide the means by which flexibility can be realized, as well. Visteon Connersville had been working on the implementation of the Ford Production System, which gave way, of course, to the Visteon Production System (in September, 1997, when the organization was an "enterprise" of Ford). They have been running cost-reduction programs since 1971, and some of the fruits of this labor have been to help drive flexibility while reducing cost.
One of the most fascinating ways they are going about reconfiguring the Connersville plant takes place in the Process Technology & Improvement Operations room, where more than 80,000 Lego blocks have been used to lay out the entire factory: Every machine, every conveyor line, every continuous atmospheric brazing booth is constructed with the colorful blocks. There are even block-size people. The various sections of the plant (FS-10 compressor; scroll compressor; radiator; evaporator...) are mounted on tables; the tables have wheels so that the plant can be put together as a single unit or separated so that it is possible to maneuver around the various sections.
As Hinkle explains, the benefit of this Lego layout, the construction of which began in the Spring of 2000, is that unlike a two-dimensional blueprint, it allows a better spatial understanding. Although the engineers do use computer simulation tools to help layout the plant, by using the blocks, they are able to get people who are involved in decisions about possible changes—engineers, people from the floor, managers—up close to the model. That way people can attain a better sense of what the consequences of changes might be (e.g., whether there is sufficient room for people to actually work in the redesigned space).
Bishop remarks, "We do a lot of ‘what ifs.' Can we? Can we? Can we?"
At Connersville they can. Do. And will.