If there is one problem facing the auto industry these days it’s this: Transitioning from a rigid, high-volume production mindset to one that profitably can produce small lots while supporting a full vehicle lineup. This problem is especially tricky in the case of powertrains, where demand for a particular engine can rise or fall overnight. Flexibility has been talked about for years, but most often appears in the ability to produce different variants of a basic design, not in building engines of varying sizes and layouts. In fact, there are many in the industry who will tell you that producing engines like this is either impossible or foolhardy. I’m not so sure they’re right.
A recent visit to the U.S. headquarters of Heller Machine Tools (www.heller-machinetools.com; Troy, MI) brought me face-to-face with something called the Module Line System (MLS). The MLS is a networked system of flexible machines clustered around a central alleyway with a common transport cartridge. Modular cells are located on either side of this cartridge, and the machine includes things like an integrated component buffer, five-axis capability, and a claimed tool change time of 0.9 seconds. All of which means it has the capability to be both extremely fast and flexible. Unfortunately, history has shown that flexibility often loses, especially when it comes with the built-in cost of tearing out the technology currently in place and replacing it with something new and different. That is, a technology that has not been proven for years in a production environment.
Heller’s isn’t the only answer, but it opens the door to a different way of thinking. Imagine, for example, that your company decided to revamp its global engine lineup around a 500-cc cylinder with a head design that supports dual overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, direct injection, and turbocharging. This allows you to produce a truly modular family of engines spanning a wide variety of sizes and applications. For example, entry-level vehicles with a 1.5-liter inline three-cylinder that—because of its 3.0-liter V6 sibling—could place the intake and exhaust on whichever side of the engine is best for the application. Ditto for the 2.0-liter inline four and 4.0-liter V8, as well as the 2.5-liter inline five and 5.0-liter V10. Personally, I would also include a 3.0-liter inline six for those applications where this engine is more in keeping with a particular brand’s heritage, and produce the 6.0-liter V12 on a low-volume basis. Suddenly, every one of them can be machined on an individual or batch basis in whatever engine plant has the capacity, and each can share component technology more readily because the overall volume is higher. Theoretically, even the blocks and heads could be machined on the same equipment, though the thought of adding this complexity might keep your manufacturing people up all night chugging Pepto Bismol. On a true system’s basis, costs would drop over time, quality would rise, and customer satisfaction would increase. I’ll admit that casting this variety of blocks and heads might be a problem, but I’m pretty sure there’s a variable port/variable pressure solution already out there.
Unfortunately, all of the solutions in this industry have to be both idiot- and bullet-proof, which means companies are left try-ing to save their way to prosperity despite the fact that it’s something no successful company has ever done. That’s not only unfortunate, it’s just another example of the stunning lack of imagination and will that either kills corporations, forces them to retrench, or makes them the junior partner in a merger.