Tracy Green, Executive Manager of Engineering at Thai Summit, an automotive parts manufacturer in Asia, with global manufacturing facilities in China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, USA and Vietnam, talks to IoT Insider about the company’s use of Plex smart manufacturing technology and automation to address issues like staffing shortages, output and sustainability.
How have workforce challenges impacted Thai Summit’s operations in Michigan? Is smart manufacturing technology helping to overcome those challenges?
As with many companies, the shortage of workers has forced our team at Thai Summit to figure out how to do more with less. Each of these workforce challenges have been addressed and overcome with the deployment of smart manufacturing technology and tools that maximize the engagement, productivity and value of our available workforce:
Our team simply doesn’t have the human resources or time to execute some of the finer, but still critical, operations they used to be able to handle, such as preventative maintenance and extra quality checks. In response to the general unavailability of qualified workers in the region, Thai Summit has also had to expedite employee training and onboarding to bring new team members into the workforce faster.
In addition, to mitigate the challenges of workforce shortages, Thai Summit has reassigned employees to handle critical roles as needed. For example, maintenance workers may now be required to execute the duties of machine operators. This not only means that workers must be trained for their new role but that fewer preventative maintenance measures are being taken due to the maintenance crew being spread thin.
There’s also an issue of experience that comes with workforce challenges such as high turnover rates or an inability to fully staff facilities. Regardless of training, employees who have spent longer on the job inevitably have more experience and knowledge around company operations. When experienced workers leave or new workers don’t stay on long enough to gain sufficient experience, there is a level of historical operational expertise that is lost, which negatively impacts a manufacturer’s agility and ability to plan.
Can you explain how Thai Summit works with nearby schools to encourage students to explore careers in manufacturing?
Thai Summit is in direct contact with five schools in our county and working on engaging more high schools within a thirty-mile radius of the facility. Through the engagements, high school students are offered the opportunity to visit Thai Summit’s facility and learn about manufacturing operations, technologies, and skills; including skills that are applicable to a lifelong career in manufacturing, such as learning about programming and robotics and how manufacturers use programmable logic controllers (PLCs). In addition to manufacturing skills, students are also offered the opportunity to learn about business operations that are applicable to a wide range of industries, including human resources and IT. During these visits, Thai Summit has brought current employees who graduated from the schools to show the kids that a career in manufacturing is both achievable and desirable.
Thai Summit is also supporting students through sponsorships of extracurricular robotics competitions, which encourages students to explore this critical skill in manufacturing that can lead to a lucrative career. The company has also participated in career days at local high schools, giving presentations to show students that a career in manufacturing today offers unique opportunities for professional development, as well as competitive pay and benefits.
How does Thai Summit use smart manufacturing technology in its facility? And how does Thai Summit train its employees to work with smart manufacturing technology?
Thai Summit has integrated smart manufacturing technology into various processes and workflows throughout the facility and business operations. Some of the most beneficial applications of smart manufacturing technology include tools that support the productivity of both employee and facility machine assets.
When it comes to supporting employee productivity, Thai Summit has deployed a modernised digital work centre to show overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and performance data for each shift. In reviewing employee operations, Thai Summit realized that employees only need access to information surrounding the job at hand – any additional information creates “noise” that makes it more difficult for employees to focus on the work they’re currently executing. Thus, the work centre is a simple dashboard that shows employees the progress of active work assignments, along with specific updates on which products still need to be produced to complete the job. The equipment performance data is pulled from PLCs and IoT sensors across the facility in real-time. As Thai Summit is actively working toward optimising OEE, the information displayed in the work centre dashboard helps employees identify productivity improvements and areas of operation that can be further optimised. The result has been a significant increase in employee engagement when it comes to making suggestions about how to improve efficiency. Employees look at the dashboard every day to see how machines are performing, enabling them to constantly adjust performance based on historic production data.
To further support the productivity of facility machine assets, maintenance crews also use a similar dashboard to optimise planning of maintenance activities. Thai Summit has two maintenance teams: one for assets that perform stamping of sheet metal and another for machinery involved in assembly operations. Each team can view maintenance needs and machine performance, including information around the frequency and length of downtime for each job. This historic information enables maintenance crews to prioritize maintenance by identifying the most critical tasks based on top-down times and the frequency of the machine error (the top three longest downtime duration and the top three most frequent downtime issues). The dashboard disseminates this information to the most relevant employee responsible for maintenance within that facility zone, ensuring workers are given only the necessary information for their role responsibilities.
Does the use of automation and data analysis enable employees to provide more value to Thai Summit? If so, how does that impact how employees feel about their jobs and their job security?
Through being able to digitise planning for work assignments and productivity, employees are able to recognize the value they bring to Thai Summit. Because productivity levels and improvements are reflected in real time in dashboards, employees have a way of measuring their impact on company success. This supports Thai Summit’s workforce in multiple ways. First, it motivates employees to contribute to business success because they know that their contributions will be noticed and documented. Second, it attracts skilled talent in the form of new employees who want opportunities to innovate and contribute to company success. Finally, it provides the current employees with a feeling of job security when they see that, although certain activities are digitised, the decisions and adjustments our human workers make are what make Thai Summit function. While we want to use smart manufacturing technology to support and automate critical business processes, Thai Summit and our employees know that it’s our people that make us successful.
Improving sustainability is currently a common goal within the manufacturing industry. Are Thai Summit customers also requesting more sustainably produced products? If so, does Thai Summit have any sustainability initiatives you would like to share?
Many of Thai Summit’s automotive OEM customers have strict requirements when it comes to responsibly sourcing materials and products. Typically, OEMs will provide suppliers with a list of approved and restricted countries to do business with, based on the materials, chemicals, and labour practices involved in production in the country. OEMs will even send audits and questionnaires to suppliers like Thai Summit to address where materials came from and ensure everything is responsibly sourced. Thai Summit is able to meet these requirements through traceability capabilities built into our purchasing system, which tracks the source and path of each material through the supply chain to our facility.
Reducing waste by improving quality is also a major sustainability goal at Thai Summit. Our facility has multiple screens spread throughout the shop floor to share details around quality inspections and improvements. These screens not only reflect any quality issues but also what those mistakes will cost the company, which motivates employees by showing them measurable ways that their diligence is contributing to company success.
What plans does Thai Summit have for further technology deployment and innovation?
We’re really excited about deploying AI throughout Thai Summit’s operations to further improve quality of finished goods and customer relationships. As part of Thai Summit’s quality inspections, cameras are used to gauge the quality of adhesive applications to finished automotive panels. Historically, these cameras have used pixel counting as a method of measuring the quality of adhesive application. However, the picture of the panel had to be just right; the panel must be adequately lit and positioned within the photo frame, and even then, the camera would occasionally make mistakes. AI-supported camera technology is now making quality analysis more effective and efficient than ever. Thanks to highly specific training of algorithms, AI-supported cameras can analyse a picture taken by a phone, regardless of lighting or positioning, and immediately identify any missing parts or quality defects for the panel. AI-powered cameras can also be used to analyse sheet metal stamping quality, such as identifying missing drill holes or splits in sheet metal.
We’re also exploring applications of AI-supported cameras in bin picking operations. Our goal is to set up a camera, enabled with trained AI software, that can tell an automated robot which parts to pick up, where to find them and how to handle them. This will eliminate the risk of human error in part picking, removing the potential for customers to receive bad parts or misplaced products that had been set aside for rework instead of shipping.
Ultimately, these AI-supported quality improvements reduce overtime and scrap material and eliminate the risk of returned or sub-quality finished goods.