posted 2 Apr 2003 in Volume 6 Issue 7
Knowledge as a competitive weapon
The automotive stamping industry is an extremely specialised environment, characterised by workers with invaluable industry-specific knowledge and experience, but with, at best, moderate IT literacy, highly visual ways of thinking and a distrust of management initiatives. Victor Pantano, Jeremy Smith and Michael Cardew-Hall outline Ford Australia’s attempts to build a knowledge-based system that would overcome these problems, facilitate knowledge capture and increase dissemination between upstream and downstream processes.
In 2008, international automotive manufacturers will launch scores of new products sporting the latest designs and requiring the formation of chassis parts into shapes never previously thought possible. Today, however, stylists gather round these ultra-modern designs looking for the aesthetic curves and sharp cutbacks that will appeal to futuristic consumer tastes and fashions, while product engineers look to meet structural and functional requirements. This marks the beginning of the automotive stamping process, which is traditionally regarded as the most expensive aspect of vehicle manufacture.
Another vital component of this gathering is the feasibility engineer, sent by the stamping community to examine potential manufacturing issues. For instance, the feasibility engineer may look at:
- Formability – is it physically possible to deform the metal to such a shape without splitting and wrinkling?
- Process complexity – is it physically possible to manufacture the part within existing equipment and machinery envelopes?
To this end, the feasibility engineer should embody the vast amounts of knowledge accumulated over countless generations of previous model vehicles by the people involved across the entire stamping process: die designers, process engineers, toolmakers and operators. They base their judgements on considerable experience. As such, new engineers require years of extensive training, although it is almost impossible for a feasibility engineer to accumulate all the tacit knowledge associated with the complex processes involved in the stamping of the well over 400 parts required to manufacture a vehicle.
There are thus two key questions for improving feasibility analysis, all of which are associated with the capture, management and utilisation of knowledge. In reference to figure 1, which details the stamping process:
- How do we capture the knowledge associated with downstream stamping processes such as tool testing and modification (commonly called ‘die try-out’);
- How do we manage and disseminate this knowledge so that it can be exploited in upstream processes such as feasibility analysis and tool design (commonly called ‘die design’).
We decided to investigate these questions and develop a knowledge-based system (KBS) to improve our overall corporate knowledge dissemination and facilitate greater communication between the upstream processes of stamping and structures engineering (S&SE) and the downstream processes of tool room and production.
Our vision for the KBS was to increase the company’s competitive advantage in a tough local market through the reduction of lead times and increased productivity, efficiency and quality. Such benefits would arise through:
- The capture of downstream knowledge and feedback to the design stage, allowing rectification of expensive tooling issues that recur on a model-to-model basis, thus breaking the repetitive cycle at the less expensive design stage;
- The development of a part and tool-specific knowledge base that could be used by the organisation to train future generations of toolmakers and production operators, and also to aid in shop-floor problem resolution. We anticipated that this knowledge base would be available for use globally, allowing the sharing of knowledge across Ford’s multinational operations;
- The creation of a knowledge-driven organisational philosophy that promotes knowledge sharing in a team environment and a culture of continuous improvement and learning.
Figure 1 – stamping process departmental breakdown and knowledge flows (dashed)
Ford of Australia exists in a relatively small local market that is made highly competitive through the presence of other international automotive manufacturers such as Holden (GM), Toyota and Mitsubishi. Ford is the oldest vehicle manufacturer in Australia, employing around 5,000 people, with over 1,000 working in the stamping plant alone. Part of a global network of over 350,000 employees in 25 countries, the plant has embraced a strong, lean manufacturing culture through the adoption of the Ford Production System (FPS). Introduced at the end of 1997, application and institutionalisation of the FPS philosophy grew at an unprecedented rate, such that the stamping plant was recognised as the world leader in the FPS until mid-2002.
The principles encompassed by the FPS and the resulting change in plant culture has also laid a strong foundation for a shift to a knowledge-driven method of working. The FPS encourages a team-driven work environment based on quality processes aimed at promoting open discussion, greater accountability and, most importantly, continuous improvement through learning. Management has realised that the application of the principles espoused by the FPS can be used as an effective competitive weapon and, as such, has invested heavily in the company’s most important organisational asset – its people – to make it work. Management views the adoption of KM principles as complementing the FPS philosophy, enabling people to work in an organic culture that promotes increased use of knowledge to make wiser and smarter choices in their everyday work.
Formerly characterised by a traditional manufacturing culture, the stamping plant is still going through rapid technical development. As part of this progression, it views the streamlining of a number of previously paper-based processes and the integration of disparate sources of information into a central business hub as the core of its KM focus. The plant also participates in an internationally competitive tool-design-and-build market, with strong competition from large tooling-design-and-build companies located in Asia. Plant management feels that, by placing a strong focus on tracking the knowledge and history associated with particular processes and tools, the company will develop an edge over its competitors in being able to offer potential clients access to this valuable knowledge base.
Tailoring a KM system
One of our first steps was to conduct a knowledge audit. The audit was used to understand where knowledge lay within the plant, whether it would flow of its own accord, and the best possible mechanisms to leverage such knowledge and to exploit it for the benefit of the organisation as a whole. The audit also served two other important purposes. It allowed us to identify a strategy for implementation best suited to the social and cultural characteristics of the plant, and to scrutinise the KM landscape for similar systems and experiences, albeit in different industries and fields.
A look at the manufacturing-design field yielded a number of different systems aimed at increasing the knowledge associated with the application of design techniques such as finite element analysis. Expert systems in this area typically use rules derived from data gathered from a small number of experts. Such systems are limited in scope, tend to become quickly outdated, require a knowledge engineer to manage and, most importantly, do not allow the capture of knowledge from the craftsmen, operators and technicians associated with downstream processes – the most important and, so far, unexploited source of knowledge within the stamping process. Other systems, centred around hybrid intelligence and case-based reasoning, suffer from the same drawbacks in that they are insular in terms of the knowledge base utilised, tend to be retrospective, text-based and do not provide for feedback.
We also looked at some other corporate KM systems developed by organisations such as Buckman Laboratories and Shell. The K’Netix intranet knowledge network allows Buckman employees access to knowledge-sharing forums and provides a means for workers to pose questions to experts. Key aspects of the Buckman experience include accessibility for all employees and a recognition that both culture and management are just as, if not more, important than technology. The ‘practice excellence through accelerated replication’ (Pearl) system developed by Shell allows the organisation to capture and replicate successful practices primarily using lessons learnt. The Pearl experience highlighted the difficulty in identifying key points from successful practices and the subsequent quality of submissions to the system. This is the reason why corporations such as KPMG employ professional journalists to capture project experience and others, such as Booz Allen and Hamilton, use teams of subject-matter experts to select submissions.
Having completed the knowledge audit, which also involved extensive in-plant consultation, we were able to identify a number of key elements a stamping KBS should encompass:
- Knowledge collection at source – there are a large number of knowledge-generation points across the stamping process, all of which involve problem description using highly specialised language;
- Visually based – we noted that shop-floor operators, engineers and designers are very spatial/visual thinkers, always resorting to a sketch or even the actual tool/part to aid in verbal problem descriptions;
- Job enhancement – the collection of knowledge is seen as an overhead in a tightly scheduled manufacturing environment, meaning that the system would not only have to provide value to the user, but would also have to demonstrate that the user’s knowledge is valued;
- Integration – a decision was made by management to incorporate the KBS into the current FPS-based culture. As such, its integration with existing IT systems, work procedures and management practices would be key to achieving assimilation;
- Part/tool based – operators associate knowledge with specific tools and parts. However, the system would need to incorporate the ability to attach process knowledge to parts and tools in such a way that generic knowledge across multiple parts or tools can be extracted;
- Simplicity – the majority of shop-floor operators are only moderately computer literate, meaning that the system and interface would have to be extremely easy to use and limit text input through the use of drop-down selections and check boxes;
- Modular approach – while the knowledge collected was to be stored centrally to allow global access, the system would need to be expandable to provide additional methods for knowledge capture and use, subsequently allowing the integration of multiple work procedures and output formats.
The Simpress system
These requirements were used as the basis for the development of the KBS we called Simpress. The system resides on the Ford intranet facilitating access both on a global scale and on a local level for all employees. The web-based browser provides a familiar environment for even the most timid computer user and facilitates fast entry of knowledge in a five-step process requiring about ten minutes for the average user.
We have also installed two modules to support the launch of new model programmes within the plant – a future model improvement (FMI) module and an issues module. Each of these modules is self contained, based on a specific functional requirement that acts to integrate new and existing work processes to achieve more efficient dissemination of knowledge throughout the plant. Both modules act to capture knowledge as indicated in figure 1. However, the FMI module uses communication channels (based on internal e-mail) to route the captured knowledge to an appropriate die designer or engineer (the assignee) in S&SE for incorporation into existing organisational standards, procedures and work methods. The assignee then updates the FMI with the actions taken before notification is electronically sent to the originator – this feedback indicating to the user that their knowledge has added value to the organisation.
The issues module works in a similar way, except it allows tools and parts to be tracked as they move through the stamping process, with the users able to catalogue changes and the reasons behind them. Once complete, the issue is closed and remains in the knowledge base along with completed FMIs. This serves as a powerful reference for die designers prior to commencing new model design, feasibility engineers who examine the manufacturability of parts, and shop-floor operators who can use the system to develop problem-solution strategies based on their colleagues’ previous experience.
A major innovation encapsulated within Simpress is its visual nature, centred on digital images. The system supports a hierarchy of image and accompanied text, as opposed to the more common format of text with an accompanying image. It achieves this through the use of mark-up tools available within the browser to label and annotate images, considerably expanding the ability to capture knowledge within a manufacturing environment. This feature significantly reduces the amount of text description required for a particular problem/solution and makes knowledge capture timeless. In this sense, a marked-up image will convey more information to a designer and engineer than a purely text-based description. This is particularly significant because of the highly specialised and varied language used in the stamping process.
Challenges in implementation
The challenges involved in implementing a KBS such as Simpress are distinct within the KM field, for two main reasons:
- The majority of documented experience associated with KM implementation is in office environments, such as those found within service industries that exhibit vastly different social and cultural characteristics to traditional manufacturing shop-floor environments;
- Shop-floor environments can be dominated by a lack of ‘innovativeness’, which prevents the operator from assuming a knowledge-worker role – a dominant fear of IT-based innovations being a prime example.
Each of these factors present significant challenges for any KM initiative and will continue to become more dominant as corporate management within the manufacturing industry begins to both realise and seek to harness the competitive power of the knowledge that lies at the lower end of these organisations. The manufacturing industry – categorised by Marx as having a long and progressive history of de-skilling – exhibits a strong worker-union alliance, and, as such, any organisational KM initiative that seeks to capture the knowledge of its operators may be seen as just another management measure to devalue and further de-skill the worker.
We realised that our implementation strategy would have to be sensitive to such subtleties and are still working on measures to ensure greater assimilation of Simpress. To overcome some of these barriers, we tried to ensure that as many of the shop-floor opinion leaders as possible were involved in the design and implementation of the system by adopting a rapid prototyping approach. We endeavoured to take advantage of the competitiveness that exists between various shop-floor teams by implementing the system in a number of pilot stages. If certain teams were using the system to their benefit, this would create a pull effect from other teams. Management visibility was also a key aspect in the implementation, with senior plant managers regularly promoting use of the system on the shop floor and personally talking to operators about the system to emphasise its importance to the organisation’s long-term future.
We are currently also working on a package of incentives, which has become a major obstacle, yet remains, in our view, vital for success. The challenge remains one of promoting sustained voluntary use through recognition of the organisational importance of the operator’s knowledge. However, developing a fair and inclusive incentive system is extremely difficult, since it is ultimately very difficult to measure and justify the value of knowledge. Linking knowledge work and participation to career progression does provide a viable alternative, but in a manufacturing context, the career progression of shop-floor operators can be limited. During the initial stages of design and implementation we experienced difficulties with operators who felt threatened by the addition of their name to each specific entry. Such thinking stems from an old organisational culture that associates personal accountability with tool and part faults. In the spirit of the FPS, however, we tried to encourage operators to discuss Simpress entries within their workgroups before entry and made it clear that, if we are to grow as a learning organisation, confronting our mistakes would have to be the first step.
Our future vision
While the current system has focused on the metal stamping industry, the key elements described and the implementation issues encountered are common to many manufacturing processes. The logical future development is for the system to be revised to suit other manufacturing processes, for instance casting or forging. There will be subtle differences in the industry segment, but we believe that much of this will be at the system-interface level. Although it is possible to intelligently search the information within the system to assist in the solution and mitigation of manufacturing problems, the key challenge will be the development and application of knowledge-extraction approaches from the large amount of data that will build up. While accepted techniques such as decision trees may be appropriate for some of the data types used within Simpress, the system’s unique visual and spatial way of presenting data presents significant research and development challenges. For the system to become an integrated design/manufacturing tool that facilitates problem mitigation at the design-synthesis stage, it is important that visual data extraction, analysis and induction is achieved in addition to storage.
1. See Abell, A. & Oxbrow, N., Competing with Knowledge: The Information Professional in the Knowledge Management Age (London Association Publishing, 2001)
2. See Kwiecien S. & Buckley T., ‘From intranet to corporate portal’ in Knowledge Management (Ark Group, December 2002/January 2003)
Victor Pantano is a researcher at the STAMP Centre of Automotive Research Excellence. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Jeremy Smith is a research engineer at the Department of Engineering at the Australian National University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Michael Cardew-Hall is the head of engineering at the Australian National University. He can be contacted at email@example.com