The FINANCIAL -- With a lineage tracing
back more than seven decades, the Jeep Wrangler is one of the most
iconic vehicles in the world, and one of the Chrysler Group’s best
sellers. Just this past May, the Wrangler set its all-time monthly sales
record at 14,454 units.
Experiencing the back roads with the top down, drivers would never guess the important role Windows Embedded and other Microsoft technologies play in manufacturing one of the world’s coolest modes of travel. Today the production facility in Toledo that produces bodies for the Wrangler is operated by an intelligent system that extends from the back office to the shop floor. As Microsoft reported, the highly automated plant is operated by KUKA Systems Group and produces more than 700 Wrangler bodies each day, in eight different body configurations. According to Jake Ladouceur, managing director of the Toledo facility, the challenge of producing such a well-known vehicle to Chrysler Group’s demanding quality control standards was one KUKA Systems embraced from the beginning.
“We have been building the Wrangler since 2006,” says Ladouceur. “The Wrangler is an incredible value offering both on- and off-road capability that just keeps getting better, even after 71 years.”
KUKA Systems has long been a pioneer in automated manufacturing. The company created the first industrial robot in 1973, and launched a PC-based controller in 1996 that integrated mechanical devices, software and controllers for the first time. By the time it won the Chrysler contract in 2004, KUKA had installed nearly 80,000 robots worldwide.
For the Toledo plant, KUKA built an intelligent system anchored by Windows Embedded and Microsoft SQL Server that controls the factory’s 246 assembly-line robots, along with multiple devices, applications and back-end systems. The robots on the shop floor are connected to 33 controller points, managed by one primary controller on a SQL Server cluster running Windows Server.
In all, those 33 controller points connect with 1,444 nodes capable of interfacing with approximately 60,000 devices on the shop floor, such as welding and sealing equipment.
According to Michael Haag, head of Research and Development at KUKA Robotics Corp., a subsidiary of KUKA Systems, the development tools and APIs available for Windows have played a big part in making such a broad integration effort possible.
“With Windows, we have a relatively open system that we can customize to communicate with the other IT systems around it,” Haag says. “The idea was to use a mainstream technology that was developed for other domains, like the consumer industry, and drive service-oriented technology into the automation world. This is exactly what Windows gives us.”
KUKA Robotics designed the architecture so that Windows Embedded and the Windows .NET Compact Framework can run together on one CPU. As a result, the environment supports both the KUKA robot controller and the KUKA control panel, allowing the entire solution to run on a single PC. All the control tasks, including creating and running programs and diagnostic processes, can be performed directly on the robots from the control panel’s Windows-based interface.
With such a streamlined management environment, the system is able to adapt quickly to changes in production requirements. And that’s a good thing since, on a daily basis, Chrysler communicates its order for Wranglers in eight different configurations — left-hand drive or right-hand drive, two-door or four-door, full-door or half-door. With Wranglers selling at an unprecedented pace, Ladouceur says Chrysler is currently ordering about 725 cars per day.
“We ship our customer a complete car body every 82 seconds,” says Ladouceur. “So we don’t have time to adjust source code, and we can’t introduce something that isn’t trusted and proved. Our intelligent system built with Microsoft technology enables us to react very quickly.”
The plant operates 20 hours a day, and IT processes run without stop. In addition to processing Chrysler’s daily orders, the system also monitors wear and tear on the robots themselves through a Web application developed by KUKA.
“We’ve been operating continuously for more than six years with a system based on Windows Embedded.” says Ladouceur. “And when we need help, we’ve always been able to contact Microsoft and get support — that’s always been a plus.”
Given the plant’s success, Ladouceur’s team might be tempted to take its foot off the gas, but KUKA is constantly looking at ways to improve. On the drawing board is an eventual migration of all the plant’s applications into SharePoint.
“We’d like to make SharePoint the central hub, so to speak, of reaching the rest of these pages and tools that are available,” he says. “But that's down the road a bit.”