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In automotive manufacturing operations, risks that go unaddressed can lead to missed production targets, safety incidents, and vehicle recalls. Safety hazards, aging assets, and security threats can negatively impact a business, including employees, revenue, plants, intellectual property (IP), vehicle quality, and customers. They also risk tarnishing a company’s brand and reputation – potentially to the point where they erode customer trust or loyalty.

To prevent reaching this point, risk-management efforts should focus where many problems can be controlled: the industrial automation infrastructure. Better risk management can be addressed by focusing on four key areas: safety, quality, obsolescence, and security.

1. Safety

Best-in-class manufacturers, defined as the top 20% of aggregate performance scorers, have been found to achieve higher overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and less unscheduled downtime while experiencing less than half the injury rate of average performers, according to Aberdeen Group research. Top performers also experience far fewer workplace accidents than average performers – one in 2,000 employees versus one in 111 employees.

What are best-in-class manufacturers doing to excel in operational excellence and safety? Best practices can be grouped into three core pillars – the three Cs – of an industrial safety program:

  • Culture (behavioral)
  • Compliance (procedural)
  • Capital (technical)

It’s not enough to merely focus on these pillars. Manufacturers should strive for peak performance in each of them.

From a capital standpoint, for example, too many automakers are forced to shut down machines for safety reasons if a problem occurs on the line. But in certain instances, contemporary safety technologies can be used to keep a machine running at a designated safe speed even when the safety door is open.

To see where current operations stand in each of the three safety pillars, consider taking a self-guided assessment, using the Safety Maturity Index tool from Rockwell Automation. It measures current performance and provides recommendations for improvement. The tool is free to use at

2. Quality

Quality can never be sacrificed, even as production targets increase and workforces turn over. One of the best ways to maintain quality is with real-time information visibility. Manufacturing execution system (MES) software can harness the data that has long been buried in operations to improve quality management and reduce process variability. For example, it can capture data on process results, defects, and attributes to help support key requirements, such as visual defect tracking, statistical process control, and root-cause analysis.

Genealogy and track-and-trace applications in an MES also can give insights into processes, production events, and quality information. The applications offer forward and backward traceability to identify upstream or downstream quality issues. And they can provide product-location and as-built data to help limit the scope of recalls.

Beyond data collection, an MES with an error-proofing application allows the creation of enforceable workflows. This can help verify workers consistently build vehicle assemblies and subassemblies to specification, and help improve first-pass quality.

Should errors occur on the production line, MES hold-and-quarantine capabilities can be used to manage affected vehicles, and this supports the ISO 9001 and TS16949 automotive quality initiatives. Ultimately, it could help prevent defective and potentially dangerous vehicles from leaving production facilities and reaching customers.

The Guangzhou Automobile Group, one of China’s top 10 automakers, recently implemented an MES to improve manufacturing-process quality control. The company uses its MES to perform defect control and carry out inspections and verification of quality issues. The MES also collects key component numbers and binds them with vehicle numbers, forming a genealogy record for every vehicle to help confirm each is produced up to standard.

3. Obsolescence

Equipment and software obsolescence can result in downtime and lost productivity. The best way to tackle obsolescence is with proactive lifecycle management. This includes working to identify obsolescence risks that exist today, as well as planning to facilitate easier maintainability of legacy equipment and access to spare parts.

The best place to begin is with an asset assessment. Many companies attempt to do this on their own, only to discover the cost. They sacrifice an experienced engineer for several months to collect baseline hardware and software information for a single plant.

An installed base evaluation (IBE) service is often much more efficient. It can collect and aggregate hardware and software data across multiple plants in just a few weeks. IBE services also provide reports that offer guidance on where critical risks exist. A software inventory, for example, could help uncover potential compatibility risks between firmware and software versions as manufacturers connect systems or update devices.

The findings from these activities can then be shared across multiple functions. For example, maintenance personnel could receive a report comparing installed equipment versus storeroom inventory to improve spare-parts management.

4. Security

Being more connected requires sending data securely to and from machines and people – at every level, in any location, and in the right context. This can be achieved with three key steps.

Conduct a security assessment – Understand risks and vulnerabilities, and identify mitigation techniques to bring operations to an acceptable risk state.

Adopt a defense-in-depth (DiD) security approach – DiD security establishes multiple layers of protection by addressing security at six levels: policy, physical, network, computer, application, and device.

Work with trusted vendors that share your security goals – Before selecting vendors, request disclosure of their security policies and practices. Vendors should be taking steps to address security within their own operations, such as providing security training to employees, and in the products they supply.

In going through these steps, don’t forget to leverage industry resources for help. Daimler Trucks North America, for example, used aspects of the Converged Plantwide Ethernet (CPwE)-validated design guides from Cisco and Rockwell Automation for its network architecture design and deployment. This helped the company create a converged, plant-to-business network that provides secure and reliable connectivity across the shop floor and in office areas.

Power of prevention

Companies may not be able to stop every problem in automotive operations. But they can reduce the likelihood by focusing risk-management efforts where those risks originate. Proactively leveraging existing investments and infrastructure will better protect people, brand, and business performance.

Rockwell Automation

About the author: Larry Smentowski is senior industry consultant for automotive and tire at Rockwell Automation. He can be reached at