DETROIT - When it comes to production software, many automotive suppliers are intimidated by an overload of high-tech acronyms and buzzwords.
Susan Brown of DBM Systems Inc. of Cambridge, Ontario, sweeps the confusion away with wooden toys and Lego-brand parts.
Brown uses toys to show the benefits of electronic manufacturing technology.
The toy assembly line, wired to leading-edge computer hardware, was in full swing at the Automotive Industry Action Group's Auto-Tech 99 conference here.
'We've produced a way of showing you what this does, not as a display, but as a model,' Brown said.
The model and the software behind it are as complex as a real factory floor. By having people operate the model, it's possible to make electronic management systems fit better with an existing business.
'We want to minimize the dip,' said Brown.
Any business change will go through a period when the new system does not work well. Morale falls, and managers gulp at the thought that they have invested in something that only barely works.
Then customers become annoyed when problems crop up. Soon, there's a strong push to absorb the costs and go back to the old system.
That's 'the dip,' and it is typically worst when a company installs a new technology without preparation, Brown said.
'If the dip is really significant, they will give up. We want to shorten the time frame when it's going to get painful,' Brown said.
In the DBM model, wooden tracks and trucks, plastic bins and toy 'product' are used to let a team of people try out the functions of supply chain management.
Real computer chips and sensors embedded in the toys offer the trainees production data. When a truck comes in, its cargo is noted. As bins slide down assembly conveyors, their serial numbers are recorded.
Purchasing and inventory control employees scan one flat-panel display screen, making raw material supply decisions in real time.
At another screen, team members check to see if their assembly line is in balance and whether material flows are correct.
A hand-held unit passes back and forth at the product shipping and receiving end, sending shipment and packing data to a finicky virtual customer.
The model is only one of several that DBM uses with customers.
Said Brown: 'It doesn't have to be complex, it just has to relate to the product.'