Humans and robots working in sync.

No paper. Anywhere.

A manufacturing facility that can be monitored by smart phone.

Faurecia unveiled its newest plant, Columbus South, to the world Tuesday, offering company executives, Columbus officials, educators and the media a sneak peek into the future of digital manufacturing that is now a reality on the former Walesboro Airport site off County Road 450S.

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The new $64 million data-driven manufacturing facility just south of Columbus is ramping up for a fully operational start-up in January. About 450 Faurecians, as they are affectionately called, will produce a new, high-tech, emissions-control product for the commercial vehicle industry in the 400,000-square-foot facility. It’s a partnership with Cummins Inc.

Faurecia supplies emissions-control systems and parts for Columbus-based Cummins, among some of the world’s largest automotive manufacturers that form its customer base. They include Ford, General Motors, Fiat, Chrysler and Deere & Co.

Although the plant is still in pre-production mode, the company used Tuesday’s grand opening to bring top Faurecia management from around the globe to Columbus to celebrate the building’s completion and hold a flag-raising. That’s a Faurecia tradition honoring a building’s completion, said Dave DeGraaf, North American Operations division president for Faurecia Emissions Control Technologies.

Among the speakers was Faurecia CEO Patrick Koller, who said Faurecia’s North American region is key to the company. Among the $1 billion invested in the region so far, $100 million has been in Columbus, he said.

Koller attributed much of the company’s success locally to the Columbus workforce and the city’s strong industrial culture — a match for what the company is trying to achieve.

And Columbus is an attractive location for the experts and skilled workforce Faurecia needs to run a plant of this complexity, Koller said in his opening remarks.

A tour into the future

For Columbus visitors with an appreciation for high-tech innovation and engineering excellence, the chance to tour Faurecia’s new state-of-the-art facility was a dream come true.

Steven Combs, Ivy Tech Community College Columbus campus president who also writes a technology blog, was busy with his illustrative notes in his journal after the tour, marveling at what he had just observed.

“This was an opportunity to see new advanced manufacturing,” Combs said.

As opposed to retrofitted old facilities that some manufacturers may utilize, everything is new in Faurecia’s Columbus South, he said.

Combs said Ivy Tech is working with Faurecia to put together an apprenticeship program offering a technical certification in advanced automation and robotics technology, with hopes to have it available in the fall of 2017. Prospects with that certification and an apprenticeship at Faurecia would be trained for higher-skilled positions the company is filling at the plant.

The newness of everything is apparent in the plant, from its modern, clean lines throughout the manufacturing floor to its sleek office space where no seats are assigned to encourage collaboration, to the 70-inch television monitors where plant officials and workers can monitor real-time production information.

Combs pointed to the way the self-learning autonomous intelligent vehicles (AIVs) are recharged as an example of just how innovative digital manufacturing can be.

The 30 AIVs in the plant recharge their batteries 24 hours a day, seven days a week through race tracks in the floor, keeping them operational without the need for charging stations or the room those stations can require.

The AIVs, a Swisslog Warehouse and Distribution Solutions product, are capable of being programmed to go to a specific location in the plant, pick up a part, and then deliver it to a programmed location, company officials said.

They also are capable of detecting obstacles, determining a path around the obstacle and communicating that information to other AIVs, including when the object is removed.

The power of robotics

AIVs are just one of many innovations that even Faurecia executives on the tours, led by local managers and employees, found fascinating.

At each tour stop, visitors learned how robotics, and the plants’ 17 robots, are integrated into the manufacturing process to increase efficiency, reduce waste and improve quality.

Faurecia employees showed videos and explained how they are reducing weld spatter through a metal inert gas (MIG) welding robotic system, and how the AIVs and other robots pick up and place parts from different stations to the location where they need to be.

A 3D robotics scanner is used to analyze parts to determine if a unit may be shipped or whether it needs to go through a repair loop, a system that takes 80 to 90 seconds to inspect an entire assembled piece.

Every process going on in the plant is feeding back data, with the end goal being the ability to predict and prevent equipment failures, company officials said.

All the communication, collaboration and messaging will generate so much data, terabytes of it, that Faurecia will have a mathematician on staff to analyze it all, DeGraaf said.

Also planned are the use of collaborative robots, or cobots, which will work alongside humans to help them do their work — like having an extra set of hands, DeGraaf said. Many of the tasks completed by cobots will be repetitive and routine, which will protect employees from ailments caused by long-term repeated motions.

In a nod to the workforce of the future, the new plant’s office space is geared toward millennials and collaboration. No one has assigned seating and the work spaces are flexible and adjustable.

There are tables, semi-private office areas, white boards for visual communication and different groupings. Employees have a backpack with laptops, tablets or other technology and may move about where they need to be for face-to-face communication. But there’s no paper — communication is direct or through electronic devices.

The plant will have 50 to 70 salaried technical experts and managers, although not all of them have arrived yet at the new facility.

The plant has been designed so customers enter a bright and spacious area that offers access to Faurecia’s customer experience showroom, which showcases the technology Faurecia manufactures in interactive exhibits. Conference rooms are also at the entrance to provide areas for customers and plant officials to meet conveniently.

At the entrance to the plant floor, large interactive TV screens offer real-time data networks tracking what is happening inside the plant, minute by minute.

Every morning, Columbus South plant manager Mike Galarno will use that data to conduct what the company calls its Top 5 meeting, at 9 a.m. each day, reviewing data indicators on safety, quality and on-time delivery, labor efficiency, scrap and manufacturing costs.

Problems can be addressed out of that meeting immediately and corrective measures can be sent electronically throughout the workforce, company officials said. Columbus South is the first Faurecia plant to implement the Top 5 system in its daily routine.

It’s just ‘wow’

Jason Hester, who worked with Faurecia along with Columbus city officials when the company began negotiations in May 2015 to build on the Walesboro site just east of its Research and Development facility, said describing the plant as state-of-the-art doesn’t really fully describe how innovative it is.

“Wow,” he said, smiling. “It’s just, wow.”

Hester said the company’s investment shows its belief in the Columbus community. It will open up new career opportunities for area students who will be able to explore the new look of digital manufacturing debuted by Faurecia.

“We knew the size, the scope of this project,” Hester said. “We knew the level of technology and advanced manufacturing, that it would be paperless and full digital — but this exceeds all our expectations,” he said.

Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop, who spoke at the opening ceremonies, said Faurecia’s commitment to world-class manufacturing will pay dividends for Columbus for decades.

And while Faurecia has labeled the new plant as the 4.0 manufacturing initiative, Lienhoop predicted this is just the beginning for manufacturing innovation at Columbus South.

“When 5.0 gets here, they will be ready,” the mayor said.

About Columbus South

What: Columbus South, Faurecia’s newest U.S. emissions control systems manufacturing plant

Where: 36 acres east of the company’s Research and Development Center off County Road 450S, about a mile east of Interstate 65.

Cost to build: $64 million

Size: 400,000 square feet

Employment: Predicted employment for Faurecia in its two manufacturing facilities is 1,766 jobs, which will move the company to the area’s second-largest manufacturing employer. Columbus South will have about 450 employees, with some of those people transferring from the Gladstone Avenue facility in Columbus.

Product: The new plant will produce a product described as the next generation of emission-control systems that will result in smaller and more compact single modules to greatly improve fuel mileage on Cummins diesel engines.

About Faurecia North America

Based in: Auburn Hills, Michigan, where Faurecia opened its new North America Headquarters and Seating Technical Center in July 2014.

Employees: More than 20,000 people at 48 locations in the United States, Canada and Mexico, including about 1,600 in Columbus. As of 2015, Faurecia employed 103,000 people in 34 countries at 330 sites and 30 research and development facilities.

Business groups: Automotive Seating, Emissions Control Technologies, Interior Systems and Automotive Exteriors.

Customers include: FCA, Ford, General Motors, BMW, Hyundai, Nissan and Volkswagen. Faurecia is also active in the commercial vehicle market through a partnership with Cummins Emissions Solutions.

Founded: Faurecia was formed in 1997 following a merger between Bertrand Faure — a specialist in spring-based seat cushions for the automotive industry — and ECIA — a Peugeot subsidiary and manufacturer of seats, front ends and vehicle interiors with a reputation as one of Europe’s leading names in exhaust systems.

Sales: In North America, Faurecia had sales of $6.4 billion in 2015.

For more information: faurecia.com

FUELS campaign

As Faurecia celebrated its Columbus South plant opening, company officials also celebrated a record-setting effort by its employees in the FUELS campaign.

Local employees raised about $23,000, which represents providing about 67,000 meals through Love Chapel in Columbus. That’s about a 30 percent increase from what employees raised last year.

FUELS (Faurecia Unites with Employees for Local Service) is an effort at the company’s 44 manufacturing plants and research and development facilities to compete to raise food and money for local food bank partners.

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Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.