An interview with Brian Harrington from Ford - A user for 20 years

Brian Harrington is a Simulation Specialist and Six Sigma Black Belt. He has been working with Ford Motor Company for nearly 20 years, and has been using SIMUL8 for almost as long! This week he was good enough to speak to me about his experience and how Ford use SIMUL8. This is just a little excerpt from what we chatted about.

How long have you been using simulation for?

I have a pretty long history with Discrete Event Simulation (DES), and especially SIMUL8. In fact I think Ford Motor Company was one of the earliest SIMUL8 customers.

I've been with Ford for almost 20 years. I started in 1994 and we stared using SIMUL8 in 1997/8. We were primarily using Witness and Automod at the time in Ford Motor Company, but they weren't suiting our purposes. So we did an extensive test of different packages 5 in total, and SIMUL8 showed the greatest potential to fit our needs. That's when we started saying 'SIMUL8 is promising'.

The SIMUL8 team shared our vision of getting the software on every engineer's desktop, so that while the 'expert' group would do bigger projects, everyone could do smaller scope, quick models themselves to test out ideas. We used to do a lot of internal training to help people use Witness but we saw that the learning curve was much smaller with SIMUL8. It was much easier to get someone up and running with the tool, and not only that, they could analyze results and be a much more active participant on a simulation project. As the time went on the majority of our modeling transferred to SIMUL8.

So how did you get started in simulation?

I have a Mechanical Engineering degree from Michigan State and a Computer Science degree from University of Michigan. I started working in Ford in 1994 as a programmer. Through the Ford College Graduate program I was able to rotate through different departments for 2 years. For one placement I got to drive the vehicles and bench mark them against competitors. You really felt you were working for a car company!

For another placement I worked in a DES group. I liked it a lot and at the end of the program I chose to go to the Operations Research Group, and I've been here since 1996. From there we have internal training so I got certified as a Black Belt in Six Sigma, and that methodology works well for modeling Define Measure Analyze Improve Control (DMAIC) and that's really how we build models.

Do you see yourself using Six Sigma daily in what you do with SIMUL8?

Yes, simulation is a great tool for Six Sigma. The underlying methodology for building a model is even so close to DMAIC! You define your scope, you set your objectives and you set out to improve and manage them. The tool of DES does not equal a full Six Sigma project but it's absolutely a large facet of it. It's definitely a great fit.

Can you tell me a bit about some of the projects you're working on just now with Ford?

There are three large departments involved in building a vehicle; the body shop, where the sheet metal is formed to make the body of the vehicle; paint, where obviously it gets painted; then final operations, where they put the dashboard on and so on. I'm currently in the body shop, and that's where a lot of our robots and sophisticated tooling happens so it's very heavily asset driven with lots of complex equipment.

For the most part our objectives are 'proving out the throughput' so that if we know we're going to have a certain demand for vehicles we're going to 'prove it out' that this proposed body shop can meet that need, it can deliver. We simulate the run to prove the jobs per hour that it's capable of delivering, what shift pattern will meet the demand. We look at throughput, try to protect our constraints, and minimize any type of bottlenecks just like any other manufacturing simulation.

But the only thing that's consistent in automotive manufacturing is change, so there's a constant need for simulation. We'll simulate up to 2 years in advance what the next line in the body shop is going to look like. Sometimes there will be major overhauls where we're ripping out tools and installing new equipment and in some cases we go as far as a brand new body shop, even a brand new facility! When it's a new, clean, empty 'green field' site,

How have things changed since you started at Ford Motor Company?

Now the most important thing is sequencing. Previously we would see just one product with different variations on it going down the line, but now we have downsized appropriate to the market, so we have less plants and we've increased shifts and we're reusing existing lines, building 2 or 3 products on the same line.

Now sequencing and mix are just as important as JPH, or throughput. It's much more complicated when you need to have parts rendezvous and ensure that they are in sequence for that to occur. Say you're getting sub components that are being built to a schedule, and they have to rendezvous they might go into separate lanes, be resequenced, get called outsequencing is a large and complicated objective.

Do you simulate all of the lines, every day, every sequence you set before you put it into practice?

Yes. We start with layouts which are Autocad drawings of the entire department, 'front structures to closures'. It shows static, 2D lines, conveyors, machines and robots and it looks very, very crowded and confusing but for the experts that are viewing it, it's nothing more than a blue print of a crammed shop!

Then we create our simulation in SIMUL8 to look extremely similar to that, I'll lay out the objects and conveyors and machines to look the same as the real shop floor. We don't simulate at the station level but at the line level. We make sure we include a spot for every station that exists but we'll use the least amount of simulation objects to accommodate that, so for instance if there was a line of 10 stations, we might just use a conveyor of 9 and one station, maybe the last station so just 2 objects that count for 10. Then we'll animate that layout and we'll have all the statistics we need and prove out our sensitive areas, our throughput, bottlenecks, sequencing issues and rules, resources, shared resources, operating patterns, shift patterns, things like that.

Now 90% of our models are made in SIMUL8, and the 10% are starting to come over too. We've had great success using SIMUL8 for all of our departments.

This isn't your only day job, you're also a professor!

Yes, I teach stochastic systems at Wayne State University. It's a graduate level class and our primary tool that we use is SIMUL8. We look at how simulation helps in manufacturing, business and healthcare. We use SIMUL8 to look at queuing theory, theory of constraints and stochastic systems. It gives the students a wide view of how the technology is being used.

Thank you so much for your time today Brian.