More than a century later, the first locomotive built using that same method will roll off the line later this month at GE’s Contagem factory in Minas Gerais, Brazil. The assembly line will reduce the time required to build a locomotive by 21 percent, from 19 days to 15 days. As workers gain more experience building on the line, that number is expected to drop even more.
Why did it take the train industry 100 years to catch up? “A locomotive is an entirely different animal than a car,” says Afonso Borges, Contagem industrial director. “We aren’t making millions of them a year. It took a complete change in culture, everything from sourcing to tools to materials and labor to make the switch.”
The new moving assembly line is the culmination of four years of planning to revamp the way locomotives are built, deploying lean manufacturing principles, which Toyota pioneered and are designed to eliminate waste in manufacturing. The approach engages suppliers, workers and customers to improve quality and reduce costs, among other things.
Borges and his team started on the lean path in 2014 as a way to cut production time and save money. The Contagem factory produces two freight locomotives, the AC44i and ES43BBiThey’re sold mostly to Brazilian customers, who use them to haul agricultural products, iron ore and general cargo. In the past, locomotives were built in place by teams of specialized workers. Welders, for example, would work on the support harnesses, while mechanics installed various pipes running through the trains.
Borges and his team integrated the moving production lines slowly, starting with a few test lines to build components such as the wheel base. It took them a year to design the line and determine the order of assembly, and they even had to renumber parts to accommodate the new assembly pattern.
Employees initially were skeptical, but soon those who were working in the traditional fashion started asking when they, too, could work on the new assembly line, says Caroline Gurjao, Contagem’s lean manager. “They started to notice the people working on the lines had an easier time with the build, and were finishing faster, and they wanted in on it,” Gurjao says.
As of January, all locomotives are constructed on a moving line. Hydraulic cylinders slowly pull chains to move the locomotive along the line as blue-uniformed workers assemble it from the wheels up. The operators have been retrained so the workforce is more flexible, says Borges. “We can move people where we need them,” he says. The assembly line also will reduce inventory by $1.75 million and create more than 13,000 square feet of space savings within the factory.
The moving assembly line also means workers immediately flag any problems that arise. “Issues are more visible now because they stop the line, so we are aware of them very fast,” Borges says. “It helps us fix issues quickly, and it means we’re producing a higher-quality product because we know as soon as we have a problem.”
Borges says everyone in the plant is excited about the changes, seeing themselves as pioneers, even though the process itself is more than a century old. Others are taking notice. Next month, visitors from GE Transportation headquarters will visit the factory to determine where they will replicate the moving line in GE’s locomotive plants worldwide. The customers are happy, too, with the prospect of shorter production times. As for the color of the locomotives, “We’ll tell them any shade of black,” jokes Borges.