THE FUTURE IS NOW Computers keep plant on track

An industry analyst anda Microsoft official praise Packard's new high-tech plant.
CORTLAND -- The Jetsons would feel right at home at Delphi Packard Electric Systems recently remodeled plant here.
Computers control plastic molding machines, but the most obvious signs of advanced technology are small robotic carts that buzz through the plant constantly without human control.
"This is the single best connector manufacturing plant I've seen," said Ron Bishop, an industry analyst from Illinois who has been working with Packard.
The only time the automated guided vehicle, or AGV, interacts with people is if it senses through radar that someone is in its path. Then it slows down and stops.
When the obstruction is gone, it resumes its course, moving along to a press with a bin full of small plastic parts. It stretches out an arm to pick up the bin and then places an empty bin under the press chute.
Next it heads to a central depot where it automatically places the full bin onto a conveyor belt for shipping.
How it works: The AGV is summoned to its next stop by a wireless signal emitted when a press operator pushes a button that also prints out a shipping label.
The AGV navigates its way by measuring the revolution of its tires and the distance from 4,000 magnets imbedded in the floor. Infrared sensors on the press stands help it stop at a precise location.
Even though there are only six of them, the AGVs are so busy that they are easier to spot than employees in the highly automated plant.
The plant has 18 operators a shift, but a total of 160 employees staff the plant 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Besides installing the AGVs, Packard also revamped its entire molding operations, including building new bins for raw materials and writing complex computer programs.
Remodeled plant: It spent $14 million to renovate the plant, which used to house final assembly operations for wiring harnesses.
The remodeled plant opened a year ago, but company officials held an open house Thursday. The plastic parts are used in connectors for cars, computers and other devices.
"Cortland represents a major investment of brain-power and capital. It took a big check to make this investment," Bishop said.
Besides renovation costs, Packard spent $28 million to buy 120 new presses.
The technology is so advanced that Microsoft Corp. nominated the plant for an award on integrating computers into manufacturing. The plant is a finalist in Computerworld's Honors 21st Century Achievement Award.
Peter Wengert, Microsoft's global industry manager for manufacturing, said Delphi has shown how to take computer knowledge and make it work on the plant floor.
"Delphi is leading the way on bridging that gap," he said.
Computerized: When a press is started, for example, computers check to make sure the proper mold, shipping label and container are in place. If one of them isn't, the press won't operate and gives the operator further instructions.
Also, when the press operator signals for the AGV, the computer schedules additional production, orders a mold change to complete the order and notifies suppliers of material needs.
Plastic molding presses in Warren aren't as smart and they are not tied into a computer network, so any problems are harder to find and correct, said John Stefanko, plant manager.
The defect rate with Packard's aging molding machines in Warren is about 1,000 parts per million. At the new plant, the rate of defective parts sent to non-Packard plants so far has been zero.
For all of its parts, the defect rate at the new plant has been seven parts per million. The plant ships about 19 percent of its products to outside customers. Packard's competitors have defect rates of about 800, Packard said.
The climate-controlled environment in the Cortland plant is key to having such a low defect rate, Stefanko said. In Warren, defect rates always went up with temperature and humidity changes. That doesn't happen at the Cortland plant, where the temperature and humidity are controlled.
Job changes: Norm Ashley, a zone committeeman for Local 717 of the International Union of Electrical Workers, said the union understood the importance of keeping this work in the area, so it agreed to reducing the number of job classifications from 12 to five, which means employees have additional job responsibilities.
Operators also are responsible for 15 presses at the Cortland plant, instead of 10 in Warren.
Plant 3, a molding operation in Warren, had 400 employees before the Cortland plant opened. It still has 220 employees working on older machines.
Packard is considering replacing those machines with a new $75 million plant in Vienna.

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.