Starting off on the right foot when designing a new assembly facility requires determination and discipline.

It's every designer's dream-to start from scratch, build a brand-new assembly facility. Along with this kind of opportunity, though, comes a tremendous amount of responsibility. How do you ensure you are creating the absolute best facility you can? How do you make sure you get off on the right foot when you have a blank slate and all things are possible?

Ultimately, in talking with managers from a number of different companies-including everything from electronics to automotive manufacturers-it seems the key is a combination of input and discipline.

On the one hand, it's important to allow managers and engineers from the different disciplines within the organization to have a chance to register their opinions. On the other, the design team needs to know when to draw those discussions to a close, when to say, "Shipping and receiving goes here."

Because today's assembly facilities are so technologically complex, they are designed and built in a number of overlapping phases, with construction going on at one level, while designs and construction blueprints are being created at another. It takes planning and hard work to ensure the entire process doesn't dissolve into confusion.

Getting in Step

In terms of getting off on the right foot, the two primary drivers are often setting a budget and a planning schedule: a budget because it sets limits on what you can do; a schedule because it makes sure that all the different individuals and groups involved in the process work together efficiently.

In the case of Toyota's new vehicle assembly plant in San Antonio that meant developing an overall timetable and sticking with it through a series of steps that will continue until the facility ramps up in 2006.

"Toyota acts as its own construction manager...Toyota plants are similar, one from the next," says Jeff Caldwell, assistant general manager for plant engineering. "We know from past experience about how big [the plant] is going to be. From that starting point, we are all working on a predetermined schedule, everybody working toward a certain date."

According to Caldwell, one of the very earliest steps in the design process involved gathering data from the different production engineering teams designing the various functions within plant, like stamping, welding, painting and assembly. In the case of the San Antonio facility, this included more than a half-dozen engineering groups working together to generate a set of basic "criteria" that are serving as the basis for everything that follows.

"They [the different engineering teams] owe me the information so I can make a footprint to build around a production process," Caldwell says. "We spend a lot of time and effort to make sure the large things are decided early on, although we also build into the criteria room for some change."

Given that the facility is expected to produce 150,000 Tundra full-size trucks per year, this first step is, in and of itself, a pretty tall order. In fact, gathering up criteria took about 3 weeks of effort last fall. The result was four 4-inch-thick binders determining plant requirements for everything from floor thickness to structural pillar spacing to the types of utilities that will be led to the different functional areas.

Not surprisingly, the process is a similar one over in Winston-Salem, NC, where Dell Inc. (Round Rock, TX) is currently building a new 500,000-square-foot facility to assemble desktop computers in its OptiPlex commercial and Dimension consumer PC lines. Although the new plant will be twice as large as Dell's manufacturing facilities in Austin, TX, and Lebanon, TN, these older facilities, and the Lebanon plant in particular, are very much serving as models for this latest effort.

That is not to say the Winston-Salem plant will be a cookie-cutter job. In addition to its increased size, the plant will incorporate an array of new automated testing technologies to help reduce the turnaround time for customer orders from 4 to 5 days to 2 to 3 days. The new plant will also feature an integrated supplier logistics facility-basically an area where suppliers will be able to store their inventories within the Dell plant itself. Again, the goal is greater turnaround times and efficiency for Dell. Right now, the company operates on a 2-hour order cycle, but it is hoping to reduce that time, possibly even to 90 minutes or less.

"Dell has been planning for nearly a year-since early 2004-as to what an ideal facility would look like," says manufacturing support manager Ken Bissell. "A dedicated team was put in place and has been going in earnest for the last 3 or 4 months, since mid-autumn."

According to Bissell, the team is a cross-functional one-like the group Caldwell draws from at Toyota-with representatives from all of Dell's manufacturing operations areas, including engineering, quality, facilities management, human resources, safety and information technologies. Again, past experience serves as a guide for future planning.

"I think it's fair to say that one of the keys to this facility is the facilities we have built in the past," Bissell says. He notes that the different teams will often make suggestions based on things they might have done differently if they could do the early plants over. These ideas run the gamut, encompassing everything from the layout of functional areas to the number and location of bay doors to the size of the parking lot.

Like Caldwell, Bissell emphasizes that the guidelines need to be well thought out, so they can serve as a realistic framework for the project as a whole. Again, when constructing large facilities, there are often many different things going on at the same time. Once you start pouring concrete or erecting walls, your options rapidly start narrowing down. The last thing a company wants is dramatic changes further down the road.

At Toyota, for example, as soon as the company had its criteria nailed down, it put a pair of outside architectural firms to work creating more than 5,000 construction drawings-a 2-month process during which construction contractors were already beginning to build the foundation. At press time, the company was finishing the foundation and erecting the steel framework that will support the roof and walls. While this was happening, the different functional groups were still hammering out the finer points of how the plant's different manufacturing processes would be housed, based on various budget and size allowance criteria.

Caldwell notes that, throughout this process, managers need to keep a close eye on the bottom line. Engineers and managers for each functional area will, of course, want the best they can get in terms of materials and floor space. But you have to make sure they stay within their set limits.

It's like building a house, Caldwell says. Of course, you'd like the nicest flooring and the best window treatments, but that doesn't necessarily mean you can afford them. "The little things can add up," Caldwell cautions. "You have to be careful as you start filling in the details.

Uncharted Territory

All well and good. But what if your company is not in the regular business of building new factories? What if your company doesn't have any past experience to go on?

Harley-Davidson Motor Co. (Milwaukee) faced just this situation when it decided to build a new manufacturing facility for its Sportster line in the mid-1990s. Despite its status as one of the iconic grand-dads of American industry, the company has been manufacturing its motorcycles in acquired facilities since its inception. To say company vice president and plant manager Karl Eberle was given a blank sheet when he was assigned the project would be an understatement. Basically, he was handed a map of the United States and told, "Build the factory there."

Eventually, the company selected Kansas City, MO, as its site, and Eberle put together a group of seven managers representing the company's different manufacturing areas to help him find a way. He also worked closely with the union leadership and volunteers from the company's hourly workforce to get a feel for what would be needed.

As part of this process, he and the other members of his team took a lot of "field trips" as he calls them, to see how other companies were getting their work done. One of the key findings from these fact-finding missions was that by creating a brand new facility, businesses can generally cut 30 percent from the costs of adding value to a product. This number then served as both a target and a guide when making cost and design decisions further down the road-an invaluable tool since, in contrast to the design efforts at Dell and Toyota, Harley-Davidson had to take things "step by step," finding solutions and figuring things out along the way.

Eberle also called in plenty of outside expertise, including that of his suppliers, to provide input as to the best way that things should be done. Competitive Solutions Inc. (Raleigh, NC), for example, provided help in assessing the critical elements with regard to the kind of structure the company wanted to build. Painting systems company Dürr Industries Inc. (Plymouth, MI) not only helped Harley-Davidson configure its paint shop, its expertise in design was such that it went on to build the entire factory.

Interestingly enough, looking back on the Kansas City plant's genesis, Eberle has only one real regret. The plant itself has proved to be a huge success-since going on-line it has expanded to the point where it is now employing more than 900 people and producing three different models of motorcycle, custom motorcycles and a line of engines-but if he could do it over again he would make a greater effort to include local businesses in the planning and construction process.

"I figured that I should build the factory first, then get involved in the community. But they wanted me to get involved in the community first, then draw on them as a resource. It took a couple of years to recover personally and as a company," Eberle says, although he adds that through hard work and dedicated fence mending, the company and community now have a very strong relationship.