Special Delivery

Autonomous cars aren’t quite here yet. But similar technology is already making a big impact on the shuttling of parts to TMMMS’ assembly lines.

May 14, 2019
It's a Natural -- TMMMS has deployed a fleet of robots that can navigate around so-called natural features, using technology that's similar  to what's being developed for automated vehicles.

In its day, the 1984 Camry was a fine automobile. But how many do you think we’d sell today if it had remained the same over the past 25 years?
 
So, it might come as a surprise to learn that our North American plants have been employing technology to transport parts from its suppliers to its assembly lines that’s nearly as antiquated. But thanks to a forward-thinking team at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Mississippi, that’s changing.
 
And in short order.
 
“The system we had here came from NUMMI,” says Production Control Assistant Manager Jeremy Mitchell.
 
New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. represented Toyota’s initial foray into U.S. production via a joint venture with General Motors. It started up in 1984 and shut down in 2010 in the aftermath of the financial crisis. As a side note, Tesla subsequently bought the Northern California facility and now uses it to build its electric vehicles.
 
One of the lessons learned at NUMMI was a parts delivery system that uses what’s referred to as automated guidance vehicles. These devices follow a predetermined path across the plant floor that’s mapped out with tape, reflectors and/or magnets imbedded in the concrete.
 

Natural Feature Technology
 
Today, of course, we’re on the cusp of a new era of automated vehicles that can find their way by processing, on the fly, data gathered by cameras, radar detectors and other sensors. Mobile Industrial Robots (MIR) is one of the companies that’s figured out how to apply this so-called “natural feature” technology to manufacturing settings.
 
Starting about 18 months ago, Mitchell and his team of four specialists — Roy Byrd, Kevin Irwin, Greg Mooneyham and Rob Mullins (Above with Mitchell, contractor Jeff George and Production Control Manager Kevin Troxler) — began researching what MIR had to offer. That included a go-and-see trip to a nonautomotive manufacturer in Georgia that’s among the early adopters of the technology.
 
“This has started to catch on over the last 3-4 years,” says Mitchell. “It really does break new ground for us. If we want to change the routing of the robots, we just need to change the algorithms — rather than something physical like tape and magnets. That makes them far more versatile than the old technology.”
 
After six months of information gathering and strategizing, the team spent the next 12 months installing and fine-tuning a fleet of 25 MIR robots to transport front and rear bumpers, instrument panels and brake tubes. In each case, these sophisticated units make the journey from the plant’s onsite suppliers directly to specific locations along the assembly line, where team members install the parts in new Corollas in the making.
 
Motion Man -- Jeremy Mitchell challenged the status quo and changed the way materials are moved at TMMMS. 

A New Toyota Standard
 
The benefits, thus far, have been streamlined processes, saved time and reduced cost.
 
“Parts conveyance is a non-value-added activity,” says Mitchell. “So, the more we can automate it, the better off we are from a profitability standpoint.”
 
Based on TMMMS’ early success, Toyota has adopted the technology as a company-wide standard. Mississippi’s counterparts in Kentucky and Indiana have already begun to test the robots on a smaller scale, though more widespread adoption seems likely.
 
“Jeremy and his team really went above and beyond to find a better solution,” says Production Control Manager Ben Troxler. “They put in the hours, did the research and implemented a system that’s much better than what we had and will allow our operations to be much more flexible. Going forward, the ability to change quickly is going to be critical. It’s a gamechanger.”
 
By Dan Miller

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