SAO PAULO – The assembly line is the heart and soul of any automobile plant. And for aspiring engineers, the chance to get an up-close look at a state-of-the-art Ford assembly line made their hearts beat a little faster.
A group of 15 University of Kansas (KU) engineering students got up close and personal with two assembly lines when they visited Ford Brazil’s Sao Bernardo do Campo complex on Aug. 19 as part of KU's Discover Brazil program.
“This was great, we got to be close to the action here,” said Lauren Lacey, a KU senior studying mechanical engineering. “When I visited Toyota’s plant, we had to sit in a cart and we couldn’t get close to the line or look at the machines up close. We really got to experience it here. It wasn’t just a drive-by.”
The students from KU’s Self Engineering Leadership Fellows (SELF) program ended their 10-day Brazilian trip with a visit to Ford’s truck and car manufacturing complex just outside Sao Paulo. They spent the day learning about all aspects of manufacturing and production as well as a bit about Brazilian culture, economics and daily life in a Brazilian factory.
The highlight was a walking tour through both factories, where the students viewed firsthand the agile assembly process and were able to ask Ford employees questions about the line.
The tour was more hands-on than most students expected, though. In the cargo truck plant, for example, they were shown everything from the first steps of assembly to the final product rolling off the line. Following safety procedures, the students were able to climb into the cab and examine the assembled product minutes after it was completed. “This is so cool,” exclaimed one student, after stepping out of the truck and high-fiving a classmate. “That was fun!”
In its car factory, Ford produces the Ka and the Courier pickup on one singular line, alternating between the two models. For example, two Kas follow two Couriers down the line, one behind the other with sensors on the skid, alerting the system as to which vehicle will be made next.
Doors and hoods, which are stamped in the adjacent building, are transported overhead on an elevated conveyor belt into the assembly plant and slowly glide down onto the line, where robots and workers quickly assemble the vehicle.
The students were amazed how the automated line can distinguish between two distinct vehicles moving along the line. In this plant, one vehicle leaves the line every minute. The students were impressed with the speed and complexity of the Ford assembly line compared to other manufacturing sites they’d seen.
“The assembly line at Caterpillar wasn’t nearly as fast and it would stop, but this was constant movement,” said Garrett Scarlett, KU senior studying electrical engineering. “This is the embodiment of the assembly line. And the tour guides here were very informative!”
Ford usually has three to four factory tours per month for students, suppliers and dealers at its Sao Bernardo do Campo complex. This was the third visit by a group of international students this year.
“This was a great opportunity for them to see some of the academic theories being applied in real life, since this knowledge is initially limited to the classroom,” said Ricardo Rodrigues Silva, Global QOS and Process System Coordinator for Ford Trucks South America. “The factory visits are important since they allow us, in direct and indirect form, to show our creativity, desire to win, our technological innovations, and lets us plant, in the mind of each visitor, the seed of our potential in hopes that we will have another opinion maker for our brand.”
The prestigious SELF program aims to develop passionate engineering and computer science graduates to guide technology-based corporations of the future. The SELF program recruits and financially supports these students during their undergraduate studies at the University of Kansas.
As part of the program’s senior capstone project, the students spent 10 days in Brazil visiting various manufacturing and engineering facilities at multinational companies. In addition to the Ford complex, they toured Caterpillar (industrial machines), EMBRAER (small jets), Petrobras and ION (both in the petroleum industry) facilities. This is the first step in developing the 10-month project, which coincides with the 2011-12 school year.
“This was a great experience,” said Scarlett. “It’s amazing to see something like this.”