COMMENT: Factory innovation will reshape the production landscape

If lean manufacturing changed the world, what can we expect from artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles and cobots? By Megan Lampinen

The introduction of lean manufacturing techniques from the Japanese automakers rewrote the rules of automotive manufacturing. It changed nearly every aspect of operations, from supplier management and product development to production and sales. James Womack, Daniel Jones, and Daniel Roos wrote a book exploring the full implications of the principles of lean production, which they entitled The Machine that Changed the World. If lean manufacturing changed the world back in the 1980s, just imagine what the factory of the future will bring in the decades ahead.

Developments in sensor technology, robotics, automation and connectivity are paving the way for dramatic improvements in production efficiency and safety. Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are poised to take over much of the inbound and in-plant logistics operations. PSA Group, for example, is already preparing to eliminate manually-driven forklifts. At the same time, artificial intelligence and robots promise to relieve human workers of the more dangerous and onerous tasks.

If lean manufacturing changed the world back in the 1980s, just imagine what the factory of the future will bring in the decades ahead

Automakers are investing in high levels of connectivity and data analysis in order to track vehicles through the production process. The insights provided allow operators to determine precisely what work needs to be performed and where. Interconnected work stations can help with monitoring tasks across the factory floor, adjusting work flows to the rate of output at other stations along the line where necessary. The end result of all this investment: worker injury rates could plunge, productivity could soar, and profits could improve.

Tesla’s Chief Executive has spoken of manufacturing innovation as the real gem in the company’s business, and an aspect that will eventually prove more lucrative than its vehicles. The company has been working towards perfecting a revolutionary automated production system, though there have been plenty of hiccups along the way. Elon Musk himself has blamed these problems on his approach to high automation and later conceded that humans are underrated.

No matter how smart these machines become, the industry consensus is that humans will be required in some form. Their specific responsibilities will very likely change and they will increasingly work alongside cobots, but the prospect of a totally unmanned car factory is unlikely in our lifetime.

Tesla’s Chief Executive has spoken of manufacturing innovation as the real gem in the company’s business, and an aspect that will eventually prove more lucrative than its vehicles

In the nearer term, plants will need to adapt to the evolution of vehicles themselves. An influx of electric and hybrid variants will change the requirements of the employees, robots and operational systems that assemble the models, and plant flexibility will become increasingly important for brands offering a wider mix of powertrain layouts.

Environmental factors, too, feature highly in the evolution of the factory of the future. Just as vehicle emissions have come under scrutiny, so too will factory emissions. As a result, automakers are pushing forward with a range of carbon-neutral strategies ahead of potential regulations.

While most companies today are developing elements of the factory of the future, the majority of projects remain at the pilot stage. The key challenge moving forward will be to bring these efforts to scale. To learn more about the innovation taking place in this rapidly evolving space, download Automotive World’s Special Report: The Factory of the Future.


Megan Lampinen is Business Editor at Automotive World

The Automotive World Comment column is open to automotive industry decision makers and influencers. If you would like to contribute a Comment article, please contact editorial@automotiveworld.com

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