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Production software tracks parts, process

Build-to-order emphasis and new global manufacturing enterprises that try to locate production in the lowest-cost facility have drawn Danish production software company Alta AS to open a U.S. company to tap the North American market.

Gary Adams, who heads Alta International Inc., the subsidiary in Southfield, Mich., said the company will work to put supply-chain management software into factories to speed workflow and track critical assembly information.

"You'd be shocked at how little of that is tracked; who made it, when they made it and what process was used. We capture all of that data," Adams said.

The software is in use by BMW, Audi, Volvo and GM subsidiary Adam Opel. The company's biggest customer is Delphi Automotive Systems Corp.'s European operations.

Alta, which employs 80 people worldwide, has been serving European customers since 1993.

Allan Thisted, Alta's sales and marketing director, said the company's "Power B2O" software lets plant managers try different virtual factory configurations by graphically moving equipment and materials racks, rather than having to call in programmers to re-engineer an entire assembly line. That allows local development of product flow through the factory with a high degree of customization to match the needs of build-to-order parts and module sequencing.

"The strongest thing about our solution is we are able to build a flow without any interference," Thisted said.

Searches for substitutes

The Alta system examines parts flow from the warehouse through final assembly. If a component runs into short supply or delivery problems, Alta can quickly analyze for equivalent replacement parts that may be on hand and track the assembly configuration for future reference. The system uses cost estimates to suggest how long such a replacement strategy can continue without compromising overall operations.

"We have built into our logic the common suggestions for the line operator, 'Instead of this object, use this one.' Then he can produce and deliver on schedule," said Thisted.

Alta CEO Tony Larsen said the need for supply chain control software in a build-to-order environment is growing.

"This is your car on the assembly line. You want to make sure you've got the red car, that it's coming with the yellow leather seats the customer ordered; that it's the seats with the leather that came from a cow in South Africa. And you can't have it all at the production line a half-hour beforehand. There simply isn't room for it," he said as an extreme example.

Efficient factory flow and just-in-time, just-in-sequence manufacturing are far from new concepts. The production sequences, though, have been set by manufacturers to push a pre-planned day's volume of cars down an assembly line in a logical order. But in an industry that supports custom orders, factories increasingly must compensate for customer specifications such as the Audi A6, which Larsen said has 1.2 million interior variations. Even a relatively simple sub-assembly wiring harness may have 3,000 variations.

Quality issues

Keeping track of such production variations also is an increasingly complex task, one that has been emphasized by European government regulations and by North American quality control and liability issues. Larsen said that in Germany, for example, manufacturers are required to document the assembly process and retain the records for 15 years.

"We can go back and take every single step. We can track which parts were used, which supplier delivered them, and even product engineering numbers from the various parts," he said.

Manufacturers also are able to use automated production software to look inside a supplier's walls. B20 is designed to work with existing electronic data interchange transactions, as well as with emerging Web-based documents.

The Web applications can be configured to share data so that a manufacturer and a Tier 1 supplier could agree on process improvements and use global capacity to balance production workloads.

You can reach Tim Moran at autonews@crain.com

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