Mac minis help automaker Ford on the assembly line

If you’ve driven a Ford lately, chances are a Mac mini deserves some of the credit. Ford Motor's contractor has installed the Apple-made computers in two of the automaker’s northern Indiana factories as part of a sequencing solution to boost assembly line efficiency.

“Mac minis are cost effective and they are reliable machines,” said Jonathan Schalliol, vice president of business development and chief financial officer of Information in Place. The Bloomington, Ind.-based company is responsible for the development and installation of the Mac minis in Ford’s plants. “We did a lot of research and determined they were the best deal.”

Sequencing involves taking bulk parts—headrests, seat covers, and so on—and placing them into boxes in a particular order so that as a car or truck moves down an assembly line, workers pick the next item out of the box to put the car together in a way that matches all the other parts for that particular car.

This Intel-based Mac mini, mounted in a UStec case, connected to an uninterruptible power supply, barcode scanner, and touch-screen LCD, helps sequencers see and record what automotive parts need to be picked.

While that process may seem simple, it can be a costly one for automakers when it comes to time and resources if parts are missing from their boxes or out of order. When that happens, Schalliol says, the assembly line had to be stopped, which costs Ford money. To avoid such mistakes, Ford had workers who double-checked boxes to make sure all the parts were there and in the proper order, further driving up costs.

Information in Place’s Mac-based system aims to solve those problems. “The software [called PickIT] will tell the workers if they are inserting the wrong part or if they don”t follow the sequence," Schalliol said. “Each Mac mini has a touchscreen, which is used to default past a missing part if it’s not available—that is then recorded and labeled to come back to at a later date.”

A total of 14 Mac minis running on Intel Core Solo chips have been operational at the plants since early November, helping Ford assemble 800 cars a day. So far, everything is working perfectly, according to Schalliol.

As a result of the testing to put this project together, Schalliol said most of the people at his company, including the office staff, are now using Macs. For those that need Windows, the company has purchased the Parallels Desktop for Mac virtualization software.

Ford is not the only company to benefit from the research and development that Information in Place has done. Schalliol said his company plans to bring the hardware/software combination to other outfits in the next year.

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