Continued from: MaxxForce® Engine Plant Tour – Part 2
Rough casting, composite graphite iron (CGI) blocks at the head of the line await inspection before being captured by a robotic machining enclosure. The 4 blocks in the foreground are for the MaxxForce 7 -V8.
Our tour of the Big Bore plant was now complete after about 3 ½ hours. As we were departing the plant, Jason pointed out that construction is imminent that will utilize a portion of the floor space in the Big Bore plant and allocate that for use as a customer service center. This center will welcome visitors and will present information, display engine models, and possibly offer seminars about MaxxForce engines in a comfortable and nicely appointed space.
At the conclusion of this phase of the tour we adjourned for lunch and some chit chat. Prominent in the lunch room were guys talking about the recent outbreak of tornadoes and how it affected their lives. In conversation I learned the difficulties and hardships that folks were going through. One of the guys in the room told us about how much trouble he was having with the insurance company in fixing his roof. He told us that some neighbors were getting everything fixed while others were being denied necessary repairs and going out of pocket to make emergency repairs.
During the month of April, tornado sirens could be heard, work had to be suspended, and the workers were crowded into safe spaces. Although the storms did not physically impact the plant, I’m sure it did rattle quite a few nerves. During my visit I was told that the plant was fully operational. However, there was a limit on how much power they were able to draw. Comfort items like air conditioning were not able to be fully turned on and quite a few large fans were in operation. I expect that by now the restoration of the power grid has come to pass and the plant is back up to its normal allocation of power.
Right after lunch, the second phase of the tour began. We were introduced to Scott Shoemaker and after a round of handshakes, we were off. We again put on our safety glasses and we walked through the office spaces and into a management office. Displayed on the wall was the layout of the Vee plant. Row upon row of equipment was evident by the drawing but I didn’t have any clue how this was going to look like in person. In the briefing we were told that the production line was a half a mile long and then some. As we exited the room a short walk took us into the main plant through a security locked door. As we entered, the sound of energized machinery was dominant.
We made our way over to the start point where rough castings were received from partner suppliers. On the floor were a number of V6 and V8 engine cores. Scott told us that the blocks we were seeing were compacted graphite iron (CGI) blocks. At this station we were shown several manual tasks carried out by the operator to check a number of required benchmarks in the castings, using gages, template taps and other measuring devices before the start of machining. A computer workstation records all the data collected about a core before it begins machining. From this point forward an engine core is loaded into a large enclosure and the automated machining processes convert the core into a fully machined engine block. Aside from machining engine blocks, the Vee plant also manufactures crankshafts, camshafts and cylinder heads
The robotic assembler quickly inserts a piston assembly into an engine block. The rod cap and bearing are fitted and torqued. A moment later the block is oriented for the next piston insertion, the crankshaft is spun a number of degrees and another piston is retrieved and installed.
I could not help but look down in between the rows of automated machinery enclosures to the other end of the plant. Your visual perception seems to fade into a spot as one loses sight of the other end. After a few minutes your hearing becomes acclimated to the increased volume of sound in the plant. Although the sound wasn’t deafening, it was indeed much louder than the big bore plant. My observation of the work accomplished in the plant was limited to looking through oil slicked inspection windows, however, I could not help but notice the millings that were been deposited in bins adjacent to the machines. In close proximity to one of the multi axis machines was a tray of tools and bits. These tools undergo extreme scrutiny by electronic means as they require the utmost precision. The tools only last for so many cycles and they are either sharpened or replaced by the tool makers.
As we continued our tour toward the back of the plant we arrived in front of a 10 foot high set of stairs. The stairs allowed access to a walkway that overlooked choreography of piston movements and installations. One could see where a piston would be riding in a holder on a moving beltway and being stacked in horizontal queues. Some of the belts have switches like a rail road where other pistons would be routed to a second or third assembly queue. As I was standing there watching the activity below I was startled by a large robotic arm that rushed toward me and stopped over the piston queue and gently picked one up and transitioned back to where a block was being fitted with rods and pistons. The robot inserts the piston into the engine while another below applied the cap and torqued the bolts. The engine’s crank is spun over and another position is made ready for the process to duplicate again. I watched several cycles of this activity as it was occurring and I was amazed by the quick and precise movements of the robotics.
We continued walking on the gantry passing a few more assembly stations until we reached a set of stairs to descend to the floor. In this area of the plant, the engines near completion by hands-on manufacturing from workers. Electrical harnesses and other equipment that go toward completing the engine are fitted in a long line. A cold run station is the last position on the line where engines are spun over and tested. Finishing up the cold run test, engines are carried along to an overhead conveyor. Once the engines are on this line they are sent to be cosmetically finished, many which get some type of paint treatment. All throughout their stay on the overhead chain conveyor, the computer knows the exact location of each engine. The Vee plant can make any number of different engines at the same time. While I was there, some of the engines on the line were 7s while others were 11s and DTs. The plant has the ability to manufacture any mix of engines that are required for that day.
As we continued our loop through the plant I observed a skid full of billets that looked like 2 to 3 inch bar stock about 18” to 24” long. The skids weigh approximately 4,000 pounds. These approximately 45 pound billets were the raw materials that would be eventually machined into camshafts. The only thing that I could see was dim activity through an oil slicked inspection window and millings falling into a recovery bin. Moving along we came to a position where a large robotic arm was machining crankshafts. The arm would pick up a crankshaft like it was a lightweight piece of aluminum. The transition from a queue to a machining area in an enclosure was very quick. Once in place, the doors closed and a number of machining processes were accomplished. A few moments later the doors opened, the crankshaft was captured and transitioned over to another queue for additional machining further down the line. The quick transitions and then the careful and deliberate manner that the shaft was landed in the queue were so precise and gentle that I thought it amazing. All throughout the automated process were backup queues in the event that a component was seen as not meeting the specification. However, I didn’t see any components in these holding queues.
The Vee plant is overwhelming as many different phases of construction are dispersed over some 700,000 square feet. It would have taken me a couple of days to see it all but I did see a lot of it. Everywhere one turns you see another process being worked into the build. We approached a station where the pre-assembled Borg Warner twin turbos were fitted to the engines. In another station, one can see the common rail fuel injection systems and injectors being installed into the cylinder heads. Racks of EGR coolers and associated plumbing were also seen. Crates full of plastic wrapped engine accessories of all types were standing by ready to be installed via a process called Just-in-Time (JIT) manufacturing. The seamless delivery of components to the right station at the right time makes this process look easy. Not seen in the background are the schedulers and computers that make all of this happen.
This plant has basically 2 types of employees, machinists and assembly workers. Although both trades do their assigned tasks, they don’t cross over from machining to assembly. In order to get a job in the engine plant as a machinist one needs to be a graduate machinist or an accredited machinist and have the skills and knowledge of the trade. This plant has some interesting statistics; the plant was originally constructed in 1972 for Cummins. When Navistar bought the building it had 560,000 sq feet of floor space and 75.000 sq feet of mezzanine. 3,453 truckloads of concrete were used in its renovation. 1,850 new light fixtures were installed and 40,000 gallons of paint were needed to finish up the interior. For ease of maintenance and service all of the over head plumbing and air lines are color coded. The engine manufacturing facilities that were in Indianapolis were moved to Huntsville in 2007. This plant saw the creation of several thousand Ford Power Stroke diesels over the years up until 2009.
Here is a view of an assembly line showing the various tools in the over head that workers use to assemble the engines. Many of the tools are unique to a specific engine and visual indicators show what tool needs to be used for a specific task.
I want to thank Chuck Sibley, who is the manager for both engine plants, for making the arrangements for our tour.
Concluding the tour of the Vee plant, I was basically exhausted and overwhelmed by all of the activity, the amount of things to see, the complexity of the processes, and just the sheer size of the operation. As you walk through the plant, one has to check behind, left and right and make sure that you remain aware of forklifts and tugs. Even on a good day it was too much for me to remember every detail, but I took away a lot of insight as to how these engines are manufactured and the faces of the people that make this magic happen. As I gathered my things to leave and made my way to the door, I said my goodbye to Scott — our host for the afternoon — and with a firm handshake and a smile I thanked him for his time. In parting I told him that he could read all about it on iRV2.com – pictures at eleven!
Just about filling the viewfinder, completed engines are gathered at ship out and await transportation. None of the engines that you see here are V8s. The MaxxForce 7 engines are shipped from a different location in the plant.