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Silicon Chips to Cast-Iron Chips: Visteon Palmela

From Automotive Design and Production| June 27,2007

Visteon's Palmela plant houses what has got to be one of the most unusual operational mixes in the automotive industry. The 500,000-ft2 plant started out assembling electronic components in 1991, but in 1998 it added iron and aluminum machining capabilities and began turning out scroll compressors. Plant manager Sunil Bilolikar says that the ultra-clean mindset necessary for electronics work translated directly to the machining operations helping to make them among the cleanest in the world.

Palmela deals with a lot of complexity, churning out about 300 different products including radios, front and side crash sensors, voice control modules, instrument clusters and air handling assemblies. (These large assemblies are injection molded and assembled on site and shipped just-in-time to AutoEuropa a few kilometers away.) It uses lean manufacturing cells that range from five to 12 people. Each person is trained to do every job in the cell, which gives the plant the flexibility to adjust production based on the number of workers and vice versa. (This capability was effectively illustrated on the day I visited. There was a pan-European protest strike, so some of Palmela's workers stayed home, but production continued to run at a healthy clip.) Flexibility is further enhanced by simple, effective ideas like lightweight workstations that can be switched out in a few seconds to accommodate product changes.

Palmela was the first plant ever to earn Ford's "Q1" quality rating after only one inspection. It boasts a sophisticated error-checking system that keeps first time pass-through rates at around 99%. Electronic products are built from the ground up starting with flat, unpopulated circuit boards and not tested until the end of the line, so high quality must be maintained throughout the process. The same is true for the scroll compressors, which have to maintain such precise tolerances that helium is used to test for leaks on the final product because the molecules in the air are too large to detect the smallest defects.

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