Trucking today: A thing of beauty
by Joanna Yap. Posted on August 19, 2012, Sunday
THERE are few things less glamorous to the average person on the street than driving a diesel-engine truck.
The thought of standing next to a suffocating metal cabin atop a mud-encrusted, diesel guzzling, nose-crinkling, toxic exhaust fume emitting, clunky, clanky and cranky vehicle, let alone navigating in one, is enough to put anyone off, except perhaps the hardiest of truckers.
If motor vehicles were horses, sports cars would be the sleek, fleet-footed Arabian steeds while trucks would be at the other end of the spectrum — the towering, heavily-muscled Scottish Clydesdales.
Yet, without the humble truck to carry out the mostly invisible but crucial task of transporting goods between producers and consumers, most economies and industries would be crippled, if not completely incapacitated.
Diesel-engine trucks have come a long way in terms of production methods, fuel-efficiency and environmental friendliness since its early days, thanks to modern research and technological advances.
Isuzu Motors Ltd is Japan’s market leader in light-duty trucks and second place in the medium- and heavy-duty truck market. It was a trailblazer in the Japanese auto industry, producing the country’s first truck in 1924 and its first locally manufactured bus in 1929.
Today, Isuzu’s products are sold in over 100 countries with overseas sales accounting for more than 65 per cent of its business.
Recently, members of the Malaysian media had the opportunity to see first-hand how modern trucks are conceptualised, manufactured and tested — thanks to Isuzu Malaysia Sdn Bhd, the Malaysian arm of Isuzu Motors Ltd.
Kaizen, quality and safety
It’s one thing to read about kaizen — the Japanese philosophy of continuous improvement which drives much of Japan’s management and manufacturing – it’s a whole different level to see it put into practice at Isuzu’s 50 year old Fujisawa plant.
Covering an area of over 1.01 million square metres, the plant is capable of producing 1,300 different types of chassis daily for different models of light, medium and heavy-duty trucks without having to fundamentally change its production line.
This is no trivial figure. The degree of customisation on a truck production line is vastly more complex than one for passenger cars.
The Fujisawa facility produces about 12,000 vehicles a month (about 1.7 minutes per vehicle at full capacity), not inclusive of engine parts and other truck components.
Despite Japan’s reputation for employing advanced automated manufacturing and robots, many key aspects of quality checking and control at the Fujisawa factory rely on surprisingly non-high tech approaches. My biggest impression was how simple, yet practical, many of these practices are.
For example, work trays for certain stations are moulded to only house specific parts and in the quantity required. The moulds cannot accommodate other parts, thus minimising the risk of an operator affixing the wrong part to a vehicle. The moulded work trays also enable operators to perform a quick visual check to ensure that all the parts have been used and that there are not any parts left over before allowing the work to proceed to the next station.
Wrenches are dipped in red dye so that operators can tell, at a glance, which bolts have already been tightened simply by their colour. Torque wrenches are also calibrated daily and if deemed approved for work, are given an ‘OK’ card with the relevant day of the week printed on it so that operators know that particular wrench has already been calibrated for that day.
Different ‘OK’ cards are hung from a board above each station to keep supervisors informed as to the current progress of work at that particular station.
Chaku-chaku’s dollys (translated as follow-me dollys) run on tracks parallel to the assemblyline to ensure tools and parts required are always within easy reach of operators.
Certain stations also have colour-coded strings which operators can pull. Yellow indicates to supervisors that they need help. Red stops the production line in cases where severe problems are detected.
Best of humans and machines
All the above do not require high-technology. Certain jobs such as spray-painting cabins and fitting windscreens onto the truck chassis are fully automated but for the most part, robots and computers complement the human operators.
Automated guided vehicles shuttle back and forth across the production floor, feeding parts and work trays to operators who keep steady but quick pace with the constantly moving assemblyline.
Great thought is given to making sure factory layout and the flow of work are designed to fit around people in such a way it reduces waste and maximises efficiency and productivity.
No easy feat, considering the vast array and combinations of parts, tools, equipment and devices involved in the production of just one particular model which may be further customised according to the customer’s specifications.
“We change things to suit people so that our operators won’t have to bend their backs as their posture is important,” said a senior Isuzu spokesman who was introduced as Mr Sakamoto as he showed the media around.
For example, chasis and cabins are lifted, lowered, flipped over and tilted as they are worked on so that operators will not be forced into physically bad postures for prolonged periods.
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