Subaru is known for making some record-breaking fast cars. But in an increasingly competitive car market, the Japanese manufacturer has decided it also needs to build cars faster — all while giving customers the ability to customize their ride.
It’s a tall order. Subaru has committed to a tight 24-day turnaround from the time a North American customer orders a Subaru Legacy to build the car at the company’s Lafayette, Indiana, factory and deliver it. That’s about half the industry standard for delivery of domestically built cars and much speedier than the three or so months it takes to deliver an imported built-to-order car.
“Consumers are getting used to having more and more choices when buying a vehicle. They don’t want to have to wait to get the model, color and options they desire,” says Trent Lester, group leader of CCR Systems at Subaru of Indiana, whose team is responsible for automation control and operator interfaces at the plant.
This commitment to speed is a key differentiator for Subaru given that in the U.S., 35 brands are competing for a customer base that isn’t much larger than it was a generation ago, in terms of new car sales volume. Most people still buy their cars off dealer lots, but more companies are giving customers the chance to customize, from safety features such as automatic reverse breaking to stylistic touches like illuminated footwells. Companies including GM and BMW have announced in recent years that they hope their built-to-order business will increase sales. But no one is turning those orders around as quickly as Subaru at the Indiana plant.
The 4.7-million-square-foot facility, where the Japan-based company has been building cars since 1989, has more than 17 miles of conveyor belts. In addition to the customizable Legacy, Subaru manufactures three other models at the plant, including the popular new Ascent. The typical automobile requires some 30,000 parts so it’s crucial that everything at the factory, from the giant presses that turn raw steel coils into body frames to the assembly section’s 1,600 robots, run as efficiently as possible for Subaru to make its 24-day turnaround.
Peek under the plant’s hood and you’ll see that the hidden engine that keeps Subaru humming is GE Digital. The plant uses GE’s iFIX industrial automation software to manage nearly every part of the plant. For instance, iFIX monitors sensors on each of the 1,400 factory motors that guide car bodies through the 1.7-million-square-foot paint shop. The software can quickly alert plant operators to a problem which they can then fix immediately, limiting downtime and mistakes that might come from a defective conveyor belt motor or fluctuating temperatures in the paint shop ovens.
The company also captures and analyzes historical production data to constantly look for ways to improve assembly. That data can also help pinpoint the reason for a problem that might crop up six months after a car has rolled off the assembly line. For instance, if a customer’s car has a brake problem caused by too little brake fluid, Subaru can review specifically how much brake fluid went into that unit on the line.
As new models like the Ascent get introduced, it’s important that the factory can run quickly too. In a recent model change, the plant was able to retool and convert its production line in just seven weeks — an astounding feat for any carmaker, let alone one rapidly producing at significant volume.
Subaru has already expanded its use of iFIX to mobile devices and tablets on the factory floor that display production data from hundreds of machines via the Industrial Internet of Things. The mobile devices mean that teams are never more than a few swipes away from addressing production alerts when they occur.
The company is also exploring how predictive analytics — using data to see problems before they happen — could help limit maintenance downtime on plant parts by only taking machines out of service when they really need it instead of on a cyclical basis. The plant hummed along at 98.6% up-time in 2018, the eighth-straight year that’s risen. The target is to get that to 100%.
Using new technologies is crucial for the plant to continue to expand production too. Lafayette will produce 370,000 vehicles this year — triple the volume of 12 years ago — with the potential to grow to 514,000 in the future.
“Uptime is critical for us — we have a huge responsibility to meet our production targets,” explains Lester.