Auto Parts Maker Revs Up Plant With New Technology

Any plant manager will tell you that downtime is the enemy. When the assembly lines stop rolling, business grinds to a halt, and every idle minute costs money. Bit state-of-the art technology can keep a factory humming and enhance productivity and profitability.

That’s exactly what happened when AW North Carolina (AWNC), which supplies Toyota with more than 600,000 transmissions a year, overhauled the network infrastructure and communications systems at its factory in Durham, N.C.

The 1.3 million square-foot plant had been making do with aging hardware and out-of-date network and security protocols until problems convinced management it was time for a change. John Peterson saw the need firsthand when he joined AWNC as IT plant manager in January 2016.

“My very first day on the job, the 16-year-old phone system crashed,” Peterson recalls. “During my first two months here, the servers—the vast majority of which were 10 to 12 years old—had several severe crashes. And we didn’t have modern virtualization in place that would give us the ability to fail over to another system.”

Modernizing to Drive Efficiency and Cost-Effectiveness

At that point, plant management was “looking to change the IT posture,” Peterson says. “Previously, IT’s job had been to keep desktops running, keep the network up, make sure mobile phones were working and ensure internet access—and not much more,” he relates. “But we wanted to modernize to drive efficiency and gain cost-effectiveness.”

The first step was to replace the phone system, which was beyond repair. That prompted a look at other systems. Initially, AWNC planned to stay with the same brand of equipment, so it priced out a standard upgrade. But Datalink, a local IT services and solutions provider it had worked with for years, suggested a unified communications system and optimized network infrastructure from Cisco.

Impressed with what the system offered, AWNC opted for a package including the Cisco 6000 UCS integrated phone system; secure plant-wide WiFi coverage; ASA firewall technology and Cisco 6513 switches for more effective routing of traffic and security; and the Flexpod system (with Blade servers), which provides integrated computing, networking and storage and a self-healing feature.

“The cost was similar to that of a less robust system that didn’t have the capabilities for a disaster recovery system,” Peterson points out.

The project kicked off on March 16, 2016. “Our goal was to have the new system, including hardware and software, in place by our plant shutdown during the third week of July,” Peterson says. “We ran redundant systems in parallel for a few months leading up to the shutdown, though it was a struggle to keep the old system alive.”

In July, AWNC pulled the plug on the old system and went live on the new one. “There were no startup issues,” he says. “The Cisco team and Datalink did a fantastic job. They understood our parameters and what we needed to happen, and communications were great.”

Creating a Secure Perimeter Around Equipment

The upgrades didn’t come a moment too soon. “Within a few weeks after we went live in July, we were hit with ransomware that affected several devices and servers in the factory,” the IT manager says. “But the firewall kept it from getting back to its home base to lock us up. We would have been in big trouble without it.”

Since then, AWNC has put in secure filtering of email, Web traffic and mobile devices, creating a secure perimeter around its equipment.

Improvements are significant. “Previously, we had spotty WiFi coverage, not enough speed, and frequent failures of the network and hardware,” Peterson recalls. “Now we have a very stable base and very high speed. With secure WiFi across the entire factory, we can use handheld devices in the production environment and collect and analyze data to make smarter business decisions.

“We’re building apps to improve the manufacturing environment, and we’re in the midst of setting up an ERP system, inventory management and an MES system. In addition, we were able to consolidate six racks of servers into one for both servers and storage.”

In March 2017, the plant implemented a Cisco disaster recovery system that allows the Durham plant to run from the nearby Creedmoor facility or vice versa. “We had been using tape backups, but we had no confidence that restoration from the tapes could happen in a timely fashion—or even at all,” Peterson says. “Now we understand how to do a backup and, more importantly, the recovery, and we periodically test our ability to recover from the failover site.”

The new system paid for itself within nine months. “Initially, we were quoted a huge number to rewire our factory for a new wireless system, but the Cisco system enabled us to greatly reduce that,” Peterson reports.

“We realized $600,000 in cost avoidance and saved another $400,000 year over year in server, licensing, maintenance and telecommunications costs. That’s a $1 million saving.” AWNC is using the funds to reinvest in new technology to drive further improvements in operations.