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Network overhaul performs in the clutch for auto supplier

Clutch manufacturer FCC tore out its antiquated switches and mainframes in a network overhaul meant to keep the company alive.

In 2012, Japanese clutch manufacturer FCC LLC knew it couldn't grow in the United States if it held onto its antiquated networking and IT systems. The company's only option was to rip and replace everything.

"If we didn't do it [network overhaul], then our entire company was in jeopardy," said Michael Hunt, the IT manager for FCC's U.S. operation, which is based in Portland, Ind.

For three decades, the auto supplier ran its U.S. factories on a hodgepodge of old switches from 3Com, Cisco and Nortel, and on IBM mainframes running custom and off-the-shelf software. The operation worked as long as FCC North America had only one customer, Honda Motor Co. Ltd.

By 2012, the company decided one customer wasn't enough. So, a year later, it started an IT overhaul that would eventually make it possible to win contracts from other major auto manufacturers, including General Motors, Chrysler, Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp.

FCC after the network overhaul

Today, FCC's U.S. operation is a $750 million business, with a workforce that has grown in four years from 750 to 1,800 employees, Hunt said. At the same time, the company's IT department has shrunk by 20% because of the efficiencies of a modernized computer and networking system.

Before the IT transformation, FCC had no computers on the factory floor. Plant managers would record daily production data -- such as how many clutch parts were made, scrapped and redone -- on a paper form that they handed to office workers.

The office staff at each of FCC's four factories -- two in Indiana and two in North Carolina -- would take data from hundreds of pieces of paper a day and type the information into a computer hardwired to the mainframe.

The mainframe stored all corporate data in "glorified spreadsheets," Hunt said. The electronic forms created "islands of data" that took a week or two to combine and analyze.

"It's amazing that we made money that way," Hunt said.

Gutting factory IT

FCC replaced the tired technology with a wireless LAN and access switches from Extreme Networks and ERP software developed and hosted by Plex Systems, a specialist in manufacturing applications. Extreme partner Qubit Networks handled the deployment of the new system to ensure it met auto industry standards for suppliers.

"We did a complete gutting in every facility," Hunt said, describing the network overhaul.

Plant managers now input production data into a thin client on the factory floor. The computer sends the information over the WLAN to the Plex software, which the vendor hosts in its Auburn, Mich., data center. The ERP system is also used to manage orders, shipments and accounting.

Because the ERP software is online, FCC has no data servers in any of its facilities. "That's lowered our infrastructure cost dramatically," Hunt said.

Moving out of the "dark ages" of technology cost more than $500,000 for infrastructure alone in each factory, Hunt said. Nevertheless, the technology was worth the cost to stay in business.

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