Manufacturers rely on product flow. And to constantly keep an eye on product whereabouts, information technology has helped set a new standard. For Dennis Hodges, chief information officer at Inteva Products, tapping into trends in IT has paid off for the global supplier of closure systems, interior systems, motors and electronics, and roof systems to vehicle manufacturers in a variety of areas. Here, Hodges shares his experiences and hopes for IT in his line of work, as well as how new developments are affecting all manufacturing companies.
Why is IT so important to the automobile industry at all levels of the supply chain?
The automobile is the most complex, mass-produced product there is. It’s not as complex as planes, but there aren’t many [planes] compared to cars. They [also] don’t allow 16-year-olds or those who have bad eyesight to become a pilot. A car is complex, and without information technology, some of the requirements that are out there, such as air bags, wouldn’t exist.
If an air bag deploys badly you would want to refer back to where it was put into the dashboard and who was responsible for that—then back to which pallets it came from, which products were put together to make that air bag, and what was put into that deployment package to fire … out of the dashboard and into your face. There’s a lot of technology required around traceability and manufacturability, particularly in the US.
How does IT and how it’s progressed over the years help you do you job better?
At Inteva, we have been able to focus on driving more technology into the manufacturing facilities and plants. When we spun off five years ago, we had a legacy ERP system that was disconnected from the shop floor. We determined what amount of product we needed to order about once a week. If there was a change in schedule, we could run out of parts or we could have too many. With the new system, we run the inventory management process several times a day so we have a more accurate inventory. Inventory is money. The more of it that’s sitting around, the worse off we are, but if we do not have enough we shut ourselves down. There is a fine line between operating just perfectly with just enough stock to perform.
Do you see where it can improve?
The way I would like to see it is a point of sale [POS] system in a retail store. You go in, you take a coat off the rack, you try it on, you may leave it in the fitting room, you may put it on the rack where you found it, you may put it somewhere else, or you may, if [the retailer is] lucky, buy it. Where I want to get to is the point of transaction where, when I take that box off the shelf, I would like to know at that moment it was taken off the shelf. You can do a better job of inventory management. That’s what I think we’re driving towards in our area. We are doing a lot of basic infrastructure, like wireless technology and scanners. We are looking at radio frequency identification [RFID] to manage stock, which again gets back to keeping in stock only as much as we need to do the job.
How does the radio RFID help?
RFID understands the presence of where something is in a warehouse. It’s more expensive than printing a label and scanning. The question becomes how much value is there in knowing that. And, in our plants, we have been more traditional. Scan, move, etc. It is still cheaper to have someone scan it.
How can IT help other manufacturing areas?
Some of the new mobile technology, for example, allows the preventative maintenance team or the environmental and safety team to walk into the plant with a tablet and have wireless connectivity, so they can go in and either troubleshoot a part or pull up the controls and the manual, instead of trying to find a piece of paper that tells them how to change the oil on that particular motor. That technology is driving you out to that point of action where you are actually doing something.
What do you see in the future for IT in manufacturing
There’s going to be more of it and we will continue to drive the cost down by doing it. What’s great for the more developed countries is the automation. As it gets cheaper, it starts to get cost-competitive with the less-developed countries. Now it’s just as cheap to make something in the United States as it is in China, if you can follow that model.