ZF Transmissions Gray Court has been on a progressive trajectory of growth since operations began in 2013 with the production of 8-speed and 9-speed automatic transmissions. As the electrical vehicle market rapidly develops, ZF’s growth is poised to catapult even further. They are already the leading e-Mobility supplier in the world and fully intend to maintain that lead.
On March 2, 2023, ZF hosted the OpExChange in a collaborative plant visit of South Carolina companies. The purpose of the visit was to not only share their product transformation plans for e-Mobility but also how they are utilizing Industry 4.0 technology to advance their production operations. Thirty-three OpExChange members from nineteen different organizations across the state participated in the visit. OpExChange also invited Lieutenant Governor Pamela Evette to participate in this visit to see the impressive progress at ZF and witness how OpExChange member companies collaborate.
Tobias Brugger, Vice President and Plant Manager for ZF Transmissions in Gray Court welcomed the OpExChange visitors and the Lieutenant Governor. Brugger explained that there are numerous ways that ZF is utilizing industry 4.0 to improve their operations. The plant tour would provide a deeper dive into two applications of Industry 4.0 and how the workforce is interacting with the technology.
Prior to the tour, Lieutenant Governor Evette addressed the OpExChange manufacturers with an inspiring review of manufacturing in South Carolina. She said that South Carolina is the best place for companies all across the globe to conduct their manufacturing activity and to invest in the future. The Charleston port is one of the jewels in the South Carolina crown, with the deepest, widest port on the east coast. Other states are valiantly trying to emulate the South Carolina technical college system, another jewel in the crown, that develops the future workforce. She thanked the OpExChange manufacturers for having confidence in both her and Governor McMaster. The ZF team then led the OpExChange and the Lieutenant Governor on a tour of their operations.
The first stop on the plant tour featured a demonstration of collaborative robots (cobots). ZF is making use of these cobots to work interactively with their workforce, performing manual, mundane, and repetitive tasks. This, in turn, frees up talent to perform other duties. It also reduces the manual labor content and non-value-added activity.
Brad Phillips, one of the manufacturing engineers on the Cobot implementation team, presented the progress made thus far and their plans for the remainder of the year. In this particular cell, two operators previously loaded and unloaded parts while also monitoring and maintaining several pieces of manufacturing equipment. Two cobots were implemented within the cell to perform loading and unloading tasks. Labor content was reduced by approximately 50%, freeing up resources to elsewhere in the factory. One operator now assumes full ownership of the cell. Travis Owens, a manager on the cobot team demonstrated how these robots work safely alongside the cell operator. The cobots will recognize when an individual has entered their work area and will immediately pause its work progress. Once the individual is safely outside the work zone, it will resume.
The Gray Court Cobot implementation team is comprised of seven engineers. They perform their process development work in a dedicated area of the plant. This permits them to complete set-up and optimize the application prior to implementation. Brad shared their project planning for the future. Fifty application area have been identified with plans to complete over thirty by the end of the year. The project scope for this team is expanding to include other types of cobot applications including 7th axis (linear movement of the cobot), vision guided robotics, and force sensing applications. The Cobot teams’ expertise has established Gray Court as the ZF North America Center of Competence for Cobot Automation. They plan to begin assisting other ZF sites with implementation.
Live Conditioning Monitoring
The second stop on the tour involved a more virtual element to Industry 4.0, utilizing data to improve operational efficiency and cost. There are eleven automatic welders in the Gray Court facility. Part of the quality assurance plan includes performing a destructive inspection every four hours to validate the integrity of the weld. If the results of the test are outside the acceptable control limits all product run within those four hours is quarantined and inspected. Although these instances are not frequent, the associated cost with an incident is very high including inspection time, production delay, and potential scrap of material.
Imren Brown, Industry 4.0 Coordinator for the site, shared a project underway that implements live condition monitoring on all welders in the plant. The impetus of this project is to improve the overall equipment effectiveness of the welders and to reduce associated cost.
There are currently four welders connected and being monitored. Using Microsoft Power BI, an interactive dashboard was created that monitors each of the welders and graphs the weld against the control limits. By utilizing this information, the team is able to see when something went awry so that the entire four hours of work-in-progress would not need to be quarantined.
In the group discussion on the plant floor, Brugger pointed out that there was very little capital cost involved in this project. The only cost incurred was the purchase of the interactive monitor.
The plant tour culminated with participation in the ZF e-Mobility Expo. This exhibition included several interactive stations which highlighted not only dramatic product innovations but also technology changes and initiatives within their operations.
The ZF e-beam axle was the star of the Expo. This solution integrates the entire electric powertrain onboard the axles. This includes power electronics, e-motor, gear-set, and differential. Everything is on-board, in the axle. The customer receives more torque while still maintaining the towing capacity they would have received with a combustion engine.
The Expo also featured some cool technology being used to introduce their workforce to the possibilities of Industry 4.0 including virtual reality headsets and FeRDi, a friendly, mobile robot completely programmed by ZF apprentices.
Electric Vehicle Industry in South Carolina
Lieutenant Governor Evette closed out the visit, emphasizing the importance of advanced manufacturing and the electric vehicle industry to the South Carolina economy.
“Electric vehicles and the Electric Vehicle Industry has really come to us (SC.) Last year, we broke our own economic development record twice, within thirty days. The first with the $1.7B economic development that came through BMW and their battery world in Woodruff, SC. That was a record breaker, only to be broken again 30 thirty days later by Redwood with a $3.5B economic development expansion. And that list goes on and on in what we are doing. And we see that happening right here with ZF.”
One day after this OpExChange visit to ZF Transmissions, the Governor’s office made another huge economic development announcement – Scout Motors is investing $2B to establish a manufacturing plant in Blythewood, South Carolina to produce all-electric, next-generation trucks and rugged SUVs.
The electrical vehicle industry is on the rise, globally. South Carolina has already begun to emerge as a leader in manufacturing for this technology. With the demonstrated experience with automotive manufacturing, skilled workforce, superior technical colleges, and logistical advantages, it will continue to attract many more business and expansions.
ZF is a global technology company supplying systems for passenger cars, commercial vehicles and industrial technology, enabling the next generation of mobility. ZF allows vehicles to see, think and act. In the four technology domains of Vehicle Motion Control, Integrated Safety, Automated Driving, and Electric Mobility, ZF offers comprehensive product and software solutions for established vehicle manufacturers and newly emerging transport and mobility service providers. ZF electrifies a wide range of vehicle types. With its products, the company contributes to reducing emissions, protecting the climate and enhancing safe mobility.
With some 165,000 employees worldwide, ZF reported sales of €43.8 billion in fiscal 2022. The company operates 168 production locations in 32 countries.
Further press information and images can be found at: www.zf.com
The OpExChange, sponsored by the South Carolina Manufacturing Extension Partnership, is a peer-to-peer network of manufacturers and distributors in South Carolina known for generating success for members through benchmarking and best practice sharing. Member companies host events and share practical examples of industrial automation, lean manufacturing improvements, and leadership development. It is an invaluable resource to South Carolina companies that provides access to others who are on similar improvement journeys. If your company is interested in participating in this collaborative effort to improve both the competitiveness of your operation and South Carolina, contact Mike Demos (Mike@OpExChange.com). More information and upcoming plant visits are available on the OpExChange website www.OpExChange.com.