Trucks at Work

The future of engines

It's a study in contrasts, the truck engine production process today. On the one hand you have the foundry: the dark, smokey place where metal is melted in giant pots to create all the components that going into making an engine. On the other is the production process itself -- today a place where robots increasingly hold sway, where the light is soft, the air clean, and the floor scrubbed to high polished sheen.

Rapidly disapearing are the clangs and clashes, shouts and yells, all the sounds that represent the controlled chaos of the old production line. Now automated guided vehicles -- AGVs for short -- silently but surefootedly take each engine from station to station where humans use computer controls to guide them in the construction process. The milling of engine blocks, too, has changed, with humans only monitoring the robot's progress from outside a sound-dampening protective box that also serves to keep the air free of pollution.

These are the contrasts of engine factories today that I've seen, from Volvo's powertrain facility in Hagerstown, Maryland, and Detroit Diesel's factory in Redford, Michigan all the way across the pond into Daimler AG's truck engine plant in Mannheim, Germany.

And these factories produce ever larger quantities of goods with fewer and fewer people. Take Mannheim, for example: it spat out 410,000 engines and 107,000 tonnes worth of castings in 2006 and should equal that tally in 2007. Yet it only needed some 4,400 people to do it. And these are workers that are no mere cogs on the production line anymore, more number than name. They submitted 19,000 suggestions in 2006 -- roughly 3.7 per person -- of which about 55% were adopted. The savings from those suggestions? About 5.3 million Euros -- nearly $10 million in U.S. at today's exchange rate. That's pretty impressive if you ask me and it's not surprising, either, when you learn that employees get a cut of those savings in the form of bonuses for their suggestions.

Still, it's an almost otherworldly collision of milieu when you tour engine foundries and production lines. In the foundries, you still feel like you've stumbled through a crack in time and space into Mordor in Middle Earth, with the heat, sparks, and rank smells assaulting your senses. You can almost see Orcs amid the haze, laboring over this almost unearthly alchemy that turns solid metal into bright orange fiery liquid, then into the common engine parts truckers use day in and day out.

And then you leap forward into the future -- something right out of an Arthur C. Clarke novel -- on the production line, where robots do most of the work. They spare the humans the tiresome and at times physically wearying chore of routine component installation -- something that must done right every single time with exact precision so the end user gets an engine that delivers power, fuel economy, and long durable life.

It's an interesting mix of the old and new, but one designed purposefully to extract the utmost in efficiency, capability, and longevity from what was once hunks of inert ore sitting under the earth. And its one where the tools and techniques to do it will only get refined with an even sharper edge in the years ahead.