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Visualize This—Detroit Diesel Goes Green With RFID

The engine maker replaced reams of paper with visual tags to reduce waste.
By Jill Gambon
Jul 27, 2015

Detroit Diesel has turned out more than five million truck engines since it was founded in 1938, and until this year, the manufacturer was using a work process that had been in place for decades. The company, known as Detroit, relied on paper "build books" to provide workers with assembly instructions and checklists for each engine on its manufacturing floor. Given that the company produces a new engine every 2.5 minutes, this required thousands of reams of paper to be printed, delivered and distributed daily to assembly-line operators and then recycled when the job was completed.

Last year, Detroit, which prides itself on its environmentally sustainable practices, decided to take aim at the paper-intensive process. In February 2015, the company adopted Omni-ID's ProView RFID manufacturing solution, which features visual tags that display instructions on an electronic screen, eliminating the use of millions of sheets of paper every year. The solution also allows the company to easily update any changes to an order in real time on the production line.

Mounted on an automated guide vehicle, the battery-powered View 10 tag (inset) has a 10-inch screen that displays work instructions.
"The process visibility and control the system provides have created a number of efficiencies for us—not to mention the savings from the paper alone," says Robert Hyden, a Detroit systems engineer who served as project leader on the RFID implementation.

A Push for Paperless Manufacturing
Detroit Diesel builds engines, axles and transmissions for long-haul trucks, such as those from Freightliner Trucks and Western Star Trucks, as well as fire trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles. Demand for its products has been strong, and the company runs three manufacturing shifts a day to keep up. This reflects an overall trend in the market, with heavy-duty truck makers reporting a 15.6 percent year-over-year increase in 2014, the highest level since 2006, according to WardsAuto, a publication that tracks the automotive industry.

Against the back­drop of growing demand, there was a push at Detroit, an affiliate of Daimler Trucks North America, for efficiencies, and the build books were an obvious target, Hyden says. The engines are built to customer spec­ifica­tions, and workers rely on the build book that accompanies each engine on the manu­facturing line to direct them as they assemble the engine. Each book contains 40 to 60 sheets of paper (8.5- by 11-inches) filled with a unique set of instructions. Some variations in the design may be relatively small—whether the dipstick goes on the right or left, for example—but all are important for delivering an engine that meets the customer's requirements. All told, Detroit was going through approximately 500 build books daily—seven million pieces of paper annually.

The process of creating and distributing the books was labor-intensive and time-consuming, and the printing requests required a 48-hour lead time. The books were printed off-site by a contractor, packed in storage boxes and delivered to the manufacturing plant each morning. A Detroit employee then had to distribute the books to workers on the vast manufacturing floor, which is divided into four quadrants, each laid out in a quarter-mile loop. If a customer requested a change during production, there was no way to update the build book on the fly. When an update was ready, an employee would have to manually remove the outdated pages from the book, replace them with the new pages and staple the book back together. Assembly-line operators had to jot down notes by hand.

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