Inside Ford's Livonia Transmission Plant Digitalization Journey and Real-World Results

  • April 16, 2019
  • Feature
Inside Ford's Livonia Transmission Plant Digitalization Journey and Real-World Results
Inside Ford's Livonia Transmission Plant Digitalization Journey and Real-World Results

By Bill Lydon,

It is one thing to talk about the impact digitalization can have in manufacturing; it is another thing entirely to see that impact in action. Prior to the 2019 Manufacturing in America event in Detroit, Siemens arranged a tour of the Ford Livonia Michigan Transmission Plant, and it soon became clear that this plant was a model example of a manufacturing operation which had embraced digitalization and were reaping the fruits.   The Ford Livonia plant incorporated an automated transmission production line which illustrated the advantages and results of digitalization based on Ford’s goal  of applying solid logic, planning, and execution to “be the number one transmission manufacturer in the world.”


Digitalization is Not an Overnight Success

The Ford digitalization journey is one which I have been observing for a number of years, through industry presentations and discussions with Ford people.  I first heard the organization set out core principles to drive their action plans at a 2012 conference, where Michael Bastian, Advanced and Digital Manufacturing Engineering Manager,described principles for the group to achieve better efficiency and performance through standardization and controls review from a systems perspective. Bastian defined Ford’s overall goal by saying, “Deliver powertrain programs with safe and reliable control solutions at the lowest cost.” He also acknowledged the effort that was required to achieve this goal, claiming that this was  ‘easy to say and hard to do.”  Back then, Bastian defined core principles including:

  • Thinking about systems rather than focusing on individual machines
  • Evaluating total cost
  • Developing people by making sure they are trained correctly and are knowledgeable which also improves credibility
  • Ability to maintain systems
  • Moving technology forward - selectively making sure not to put new technology into plants that have not been tried and proven robust

He further described what Ford had identified as their three major focuses, namely standardization, flexibility, and acceleration.

As we look at the plant today, it might appear on the surface that the results being achieved may appear to represent overnight successes, but a look at the company history clearly shows that Ford is currently reaping fruits of work, foresight and investments built on the kind of foundations, which  Michael Bastian laid out way back in 2012…this journey took several years to achieve the results seen today.


Key Takeaways

Based on the discussions and the Ford Livonia Michigan Transmission Plant tour, in the seven years since I first heard Ford and Bastian discuss digitalization plants, I have gleaned several takeaways that I believe make this operation a winner:

Macro Decisions

There were number of decisions made in the process that helped to build an efficient digitalization operation.

  • Implementing a full Digital Twin from design that mirrors the entire process providing visibility.
  • Virtual commissioning improving design, installation and commissioning efficiency.
  • Panel free installation leveraging hardware with IP65 connections eliminating control panels streamlining installation and preserving factory floor space. 
  • Integrating PLCs within the machine tool CNC controllers.
  • Integrating safety systems.
  • Global machine condition monitoring throughout the world for predictive maintenance and performance analysis.
  • Central digital manufacturing engineering organization creating consistency and efficiency.
  • Distributed control rather than one big control cabinet per work center.
  • Flexible production thinking, by leveraging machines and automation for efficient changeovers.



Standardization across all of Ford’s plants worldwide has yielded great benefits by simplifying design and execution and creating greater efficiency. This organization-wide effort included:

  • Standardized naming conventions throughout the entire organization for controls and automation.
  • Standards for hardware, network, software, fluid power, and sensors create uniformity throughout the manufacturing organization.  This also simplifies maintenance and reduces spares inventories.
  • Factory network standardization on Ethernet including PROFINET for the factory network creates a stable platform.
  • Common software configuration for metal cutting and assembly operations. 
  • Software Standardization - FORD Automation Software Template (FAST) standardization including programming structure, function blocks, HMI screens.  FAST creates quality and uniformity including configuration at the station level, process configuration, part tracking and traceability, and manages communications to the factory information system for throughput and machine monitoring.  Software standards enables tested stable applications to be replicated and deployed quickly and efficiently throughout all plants.


Goal Alignment

Most importantly for Ford, everyone in the organization was brought into alignment, understanding that to achieve the manufacturing goals, required uniformity which was achieved with standards.   The collaboration between company purchasers, designers and engineers throughout the organization was described as immense, yet had everybody moving lockstep, based on the design standards, leading to enforcement of purchase specifications based on those standards.


Ford’s Digital Production System

Claimed as one of the company’s breakthrough strategies, the Ford Production System integrated quality, IT, maintenance, and linking control execution.  This leveraged Simulation/Digital Tools including:

  • Computer Aided Process Planning
  • Computer Aided Engineering
  • 3D Images
  • Simulating Workstations
  • Assembly Simulation
  • Discrete Event Simulation.    

This evolved into a total digital engineering manufacturing strategy that incorporated all of digital design, virtual design, virtual machining, comprehensive digital twin, and PLM.


A Focus on People

The people at Ford are proud of their current operational success and it was obvious that they have a functioning unit of management, engineering, specialists, and a UAW workforce that has mutual respect working together to achieve their goal, “be the number one transmission manufacturer in the world.”  This cooperation was emphasized by Plant Manager, Bob Groden and Keith Miller, the UAW Local 182 President and Chairman, as they discussed a focus on people, training, and teamwork that I found very impressive.


There is No Silver Bullet

Over the years, manufacturing management in many companies have looked for the single ‘silver bullet’, a technological shortcut to be successful. Rather, as Ford has proven, the formula of understanding takes vision, investment, teamwork, and the development of people in order to excel in manufacturing.  With this effort, the entire team at the Ford Livonia Michigan Transmission Plant, has shown to be an impressive group getting results, and can serve as a prime example for United States manufacturing on how to achieve sustained success.


Related Articles

Learn More

Did you enjoy this great article?

Check out our free e-newsletters to read more great articles..