Manufacturing innovations are prominent during Ford of Canada's Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX production at the Oakville assembly complex (OAC) in Ontario province.

Through the use of reprogrammable and quick change tooling , OAC can build multiple models on unique platforms enabling the plant to change the mix, volume and options of products more quickly in response to consumer demand.

Flexible manufacturing eliminates the lengthy and expensive retooling process required for traditional model changeovers.

To improve efficiencies, OAC is one of seven flexible Ford facilities in North America to employ the same 16-cell flexible body assembly system.

Each cell shares more than 300 standardised components and robots within cells are programmed to respond to variation in work flow and functions without missing a beat. Similarly, paint facilities and final assembly lines use similar standard-cell concepts to spread the cost savings throughout the manufacturing organisation.

The benefits of flexible manufacturing include economies of scale and standardisation, which offers consistent quality, allowing for more predictable output and improved quality management.

Flexible manufacturing can provide an estimated initial new product launch cost savings of 10-15% and over 50% cost reductions on mid-cycle changeovers. There is also a significant increase in productivity and reduction in waste.

Ford is on track to have 77% of its North American assembly facilities flexible, up from 38% in 2004.

Investment, new technologies and a shared vision on work practices have enabled OAC to secure its place as a showplace plant for Ford manufacturing.

The $US1bn transformation of OAC included the company's latest version of flexible manufacturing, incorporating the latest tooling technology and all that has been learned at Ford's six other North American flexible plants.

OAC uses palletised systems which can accommodate vehicles of varying lengths, and the latest robotics for material-handling, welding, and sealer/adhesive applications.

The Oakville "complex" is derived from the buildings that once housed the Oakville Assembly Plant and the Ontario Truck Plant, a total space of 5.4million square feet. All re-developed buildings feature the latest in water and air quality management.

The largest investment was made in OAC Body #1 which houses 250 pallets and approximately 400 robots. Fully flexible to accept different models or variations on the same platform, OAC Body #1 welds and assembles metal body stampings/assemblies.

Another re-developed building, OAC Body #2 contains nearly 200 robots and produces front/rear doors and rear underbody assemblies.

Wireless technology installed at the plant and on delivery trucks carrying inbound supplies enable the plant to monitor truck status and improve the efficiency of just-in-time shipments, reducing freight and inventory carrying costs.

Advanced vision systems use a form of artificial intelligence in reviewing body and floor panel dimensions. In the past, measuring and qualifying parts for dimensional accuracy was less precise - part visual, part machine. Vision and laser tracking systems are used to analyse the accuracy of the pallets and tooling.

Newly-installed servo-electric weld guns in the flex body shop eliminate the loud noise associated with the older, air-powered tools. The guns are also programmed to find 'perfect centres' each time two pieces of sheet metal are brought together for welding. The old system relied on a less sophisticated system of springs.

The OAC in-house centre of excellence is dedicated to checking all components and optimising part-to-part coordination. Previously, the plant focused on the coordination of sheet metal components only. This new approach focuses on the coordination of the entire vehicle.

Flexible manufacturing and a flexible operational pattern work hand-in-hand. To be competitive for future products, OAC was very strategic in successfully negotiating the option of activating several three-shift operating iterations to meet potential future capacity or volume needs.

Employees have completed extensive training in flexible assembly techniques, using the latest computer technology. OAC houses a multi-million dollar training facility which duplicates the workstations on the floor in a quiet school environment.

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