IAC assembling smart auto factory for a flexible future
IAC Halewood's cockpit assembly line (Credit: IAC Group)

IAC assembling smart auto factory for a flexible future

Auto parts manufacturer Industrial Automotive Components (IAC) is to roll out a range of industrial IoT (IIoT) projects at its Halewood, UK, plant, which could serve as a model for the $4.4 billion company’s other factories worldwide. Jessica Twentyman reports.

On the aptly named Renaissance Way in the Merseyside town of Halewood, UK, a major implementation of industrial IoT (IIoT) technologies is underway. The transformation is designed to breathe new life into manufacturing operations at an auto parts factory owned by Industrial Automotive Components (IAC).

The company, which has more than 60 facilities – including over 50 factories – across 19 countries, has chosen its Halewood plant as a target for experimentation, with plans to roll out a range of new technologies, including IIoT sensors, real-time data analytics, and collaborative robots (cobots).

These smart factory technologies, IAC’s leaders hope, will enable the plant to be more flexible in accommodating orders from customers, such as nearby Jaguar Land Rover (which has a plant in Halewood), and to find more efficient ways of producing high-quality vehicle interiors.

“We are committed to providing innovative interior solutions that support our OEM customers as they advance towards the development and deployment of fully automated vehicles,” says Jonas Nilsson, president of IAC Europe.

“Our IAC Halewood location is taking the next step into the future of mobility, with the use of cutting-edge technologies focused on the efficient creation of high-quality interiors.”

Autonomous future?

IAC is preparing for a future in which the cockpits of self-driving cars will look very different to the ones it creates today – and will be built differently, too. Ride-sharing schemes and greener driving are among the trends on management’s radar as the company ponders how best to build the cockpit of the future.  

And because of uncertainty over the exact shape of the future market, IAC needs a manufacturing facility that is flexible, updatable, and agile.

According to the company, IAC Halewood features an “extremely flexible” just-in-time assembly line for the cockpits its builds for several different vehicles. For example, the company has substituted a fixed carousel with 42 automated guided vehicles (AGVs) to deliver parts to the production line, enabling workers to assemble up to four million cockpit variants on a single production line.

The production line itself can easily be reconfigured by taping different arrangements of magnetic guidance strips on the shop floor, which the AGVs use to navigate around the factory.

Real-time machine utilisation software allows plant managers to keep a close eye on how work is progressing, while enabling them to make immediate adjustments. Meanwhile, data analytics mean that they can experiment with future planning and manufacturing improvements.

Once a cockpit reaches the end of the production line, it is checked by skilled operators for quality control – but they will be assisted in the task by cobots, equipped with cameras.

Internet of Business says

According to IAC, the next step in the company’s journey towards a smarter, more flexible factory at Halewood is to take its use of machine utilisation data one step further, and use it for predictive maintenance purposes.

This will enable factory managers to keep an even closer eye on their machinery and, based on the data it sends about its operations and condition, make accurate assessments as to when repairs and maintenance will be needed. This could help the factory to avoid downtime completely.

Beyond Halewood, IAC says it plans to roll out smart factory integration to all of its European manufacturing operations, “to improve manual work, increase flexibility, minimise scrap, eradicate defects, enhance process automation, and reduce single-use equipment.”

In the UK in particular, such efficiencies will be welcomed by managers as the country navigates Brexit turbulence – but perhaps not by workers themselves.

Halewood was hit by job losses last year, as some work was transferred to an even more cost-efficient IAC plant in Birmingham, the Liverpool Echo reported. And earlier this year, Jaguar Land Rover, a major IAC customer, announced plans to cut production at its own Halewood plant, blaming Brexit uncertainty and a tax crackdown on diesel vehicles.