Use of good material handling - be it high-tech or just plain common sense - can improve a company's productivity and efficiency. Or it can backfire.
At this week's ProMat '89 here, there were several "how-to" and "how- not-to" case studies of the proper use of material handling innovations.Three MidAmerica companies provided good examples of the issues:
* Sundstrand Corp. in Rockford, Ill., which produces avionics and flight instrumentation products for the aerospace and aviation industries, upgraded material handling to maximize use of existing space.
* General Motors Corp.'s Buick Reatta plant in Lansing, Mich., tried using robotized AGVs (automatic guided vehicles) for assembly, not just handling, with mixed results.
* Tupperware, the Orlando, Fla.-based producer of household plastic products, created a new integrated computerized system, complete with bar coding and scanners, to control the flow of its products in and out of its distribution centers.
In 1985 Sundstrand's main Rockford plant, which receives subassemblies
from six other Sundstrand plants, wanted to expand and hired an outside consultant to advise the company.
What the consultant found was confusion. WIP - the industry's jargon for work-in-progress - was stacked everywhere.
What Sundstrand opted for were mobile aisle storage units and vertical carousels, putting parts near the work stations. The move freed 20,000 square feet of a 176,000-square-foot plant and cut travel time for workers to parts by 29 percent, according to the case study.
As a result of that and other handling improvements, Sundstrand did not have to invest in a 25,000-square-foot expansion but instead created 28,000 square feet of new, usable space in its existing Rockford facility last year.
Within the first six months of operation, the plant was reporting record monthly volumes "with fewer people in less space, and the pace hasn't let up."
The Buick Reatta Craft Center case study is a good example of the advantage of hindsight. The paper itself noted that extending the use of automatic guided vehicles to actual assembly was tried too quickly by too many in the United States.
GM started the move at its main Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac plant in Lansing in 1983-1984, but not without some problems. Nonetheless, there are now over 30 assembly and assembly support systems with AGV systems and some 2,000 robot AGVs working them, the study noted. A key to eventual success of using automatic guided vehicles in assembly is people - teamwork in analyzing priorities and problems.
While GM was working out its introduction of AGVs in some assembly processes, it decided to renovate a facility across town in Lansing to build the new Reatta. And it wanted to use AGVs for assembly. The car's design came
from West Germany and was based on a similar design built substantially by AGVs from Portec Inc.
One of the key sticking points in negotiations to open the new plant hinged on computer software requirements. The basic Portec software for the robotized Portec AGVs was based on higher-volume European plants; that needed to be changed. GM was already cautious about AGV use based on previous experience, but had no in-house experts.
The case study analyzed some of the basic problems: GM underestimated the supplier's capabilities; the supplier couldn't meet the buyer's demand without approval, in triplicate, from headquarters; problems in setup and start-up created problems throughout the whole process.
The Reatta study cautioned that AGVs in assembly "do not save direct manpower. Rather, they are just another material handling tool with good and bad features."
These labor-saving devices should only be used when the advantages outweigh the disadvantages of unreliability, should the machines fail.
Tupperware is in the midst of its new Tupperware Order System, already in place at its South Carolina distribution plant and being installed in Tennessee, with plans to extend it to its Rhode Island and Idaho plants. The company is now waiting for responses to bids on AGVs.
The Tupperware case study came from James V. Pierce Jr., vice president for integrated systems at Automation Engineering Inc. in Fort Wayne, Ind. In essence, Tupperware is shifting to a sophisticated electronic and bar coding system to control its inventories for its direct home-sales inventories of some $600 million annually.
While Sundstrand faced a lack of space, Tupperware, like many home-sales companies in a changing age of families where both spouses are working, faced the problem of a decreasing sales force, an essential ingredient for home sales. So it turned to advertising, distribution and better product mix, the study noted.
It pulled two vendors - Automation Engineering and Versa Corp., a subsidiary of Phillips Industries, which markets Robo-Pic handling systems - together with Tupperware distribution officials to create a new team, the Tupperware Order Processing System, or TOPS, only about three years ago.
As a result came a dense storage system, complete with specific bar coding, tracking, dispatch and transport systems, to enable Tupperware more efficiently to distribute its products to its home sales representatives.
The case study cited the success of high-level planning, a joint multi- company team effort, phased implementation for debugging and training and a combination of information and material control.