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VALEO SA, a worldwide auto supplier, has a radical way of building its subassemblies, things like the front-end modules for the new Infiniti JX. Rather than the product moving down an assembly line from person to person, each performing a single set of tasks, Valeo workers do the moving, each worker completing the subassembly unit in one lap of an assembly circle. The company calls the process “Operator in Motion,” and claims this innovative approach is flexible, cost-effective—and even beneficial for workers.
What a contrast to the traditional assembly line, a concept that evolved over years through interchangeable parts and analytical studies of work flow. Curiously enough, one precursor of this was the Xi’an Terracotta Army of ceramic soldiers—heads, arms, legs and torsos of the 8000 figures were job-shopped to different suppliers for later assembly.
Another use of assembly lines was in the Chicago meatpacking industry, where conveyor belts moved the product from operator to operator. New England manufacturers of firearms, clocks and other products also translated skills from craftsmen to machines in the late 1800s. Ransom Olds patented the concept in the automotive world in 1901; Henry Ford introduced it big time into Model T production by 1913. And, with few exceptions (such as Volvo’s experiment with team assembly), the assembly line is today’s norm in manufacture.
Valeo devised “Operator in Motion” to enhance flexibility depending on customer demand. If orders rise, more workers are hired to walk the circle; should a downturn come—as it did in 2009—it’s less costly to reduce headcount than to idle expensive machinery.
Hardly a paternalistic view on hiring, but it’s said employees come to prefer the assembly circle concept over the grinding repetitiveness of a traditional line.
Also, there’s less factory investment with assembly circles requiring less area than traditional lines. Currently, Valeo uses the concept for front-end modules of the Infiniti JX, Nissan Pathfinder and Jeep Cherokee. “Operator in Motion” has been introduced in ten other Valeo facilities around the world. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2012