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Automotive manufacturers shift from working harder to working smarter with bigger focus on innovation and technology

Consumer demands for fuel efficient vehicles at a low cost are driving changes in automotive manufacturing. To meet market requirements, OEMs and auto parts suppliers are investing in innovative technologies to help produce lighter weight vehicles at competitive prices.

And it's not just the OEMs and big Tier 1 suppliers like Magna, Linamar and Martinrea making these investments. Many of the smaller Tier 1, 2 and 3 automotive suppliers are working smarter, investing in technologies and manufacturing processes to help compete better not just in Canada, but on the automotive world stage. 

Take tool and die shop J.P. Bowman, a Brantford, ON, company specializing in mid to large size progressive and transfer dies in plate and cast construction. Established in 1984, the company is a key tooling source for automotive stamping plants in Europe, Mexico, US and Canada. To better compete, J.P. Bowman has developed a niche on dual phase and HSLA materials with complex part geometries.

"Part geometry is always getting more complex as OEM's and T1's try to reduce the number of parts being welded together as well as increase the performance of the lighter materials being used," says Jamie Bowman, grandson of company founder Joe P. Bowman. "Many OEMs are still putting unnecessarily tight tolerances on some features, such as drain holes or surfaces that are not tied to a mating surface."

Bowman notes the use of lighter, harder materials is increasing rapidly, and this has a silver lining of sorts for the Canadian industry, as there is then less reliance on low cost countries for tool builds.

Automating to compete
Canada is considered one of the most expensive places in the world to make a car or truck. We have lost the cost advantage of a weak dollar, and the average hourly wage of a Canadian autoworker is $64.

Automotive OEMs and auto parts suppliers are learning to adjust to this new reality and introducing automation into their plants to reduce production costs and improve productivity.

Indeed, Tony Faria, a professor and automotive industry expert at the Odette School of Business, University of Windsor, says robotics in assembly plants is "growing enormously."

Robots can perform quality, precision work in a fully automated environment for much less than $64 an hour. They might also be able to better adapt to the rapidly changing demands of the industry, in which lighter materials are used with greater precision.

"Aluminum content is growing at about 5 per cent a year, as are composites," says Faria. "But companies are running into problems, because fuel economy standards are going head to head with stricter safety standards, and in general a heavier vehicle is safer."

There is no doubt Canada's automotive manufacturing industry is facing some significant challenges, but manufacturers can still be competitive if they invest in the right technologies and equipment. And many are learning to work smarter–investing in automation, new manufacturing processes and technologies–to keep Canada's automotive industry viable for years to come. SMT

Written by Mary Scianna, based on published information from contributing editor Tim Wilson. 



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