The first half of 2020 was like no other, whether it was dealing with dramatic losses or transforming to support a new way of doing business. Some industries have managed to move along at a snail’s pace while others, such as automotive, stopped entirely for a time. Manufacturing came to a standstill the likes of which hadn’t been seen since wartime, placing intense pressure on an industry already coping with a shift in global demand.
Production in the UK has seen its output drop to its lowest levels since 1954, as the lockdown caused every major factory to close. The automotive industry is quite traditional in many ways, which has previously protected it to a large degree, but processes that have successfully functioned for over 100 years have, and will continue, to face massive disruptions because of COVID-19. For the sake of the industry, and for the purpose of supporting national and global economies, there needs to be a fresh look at alternative options in car production. Many industries will be looking at how they can future-proof and for automotive this lies in the adoption of new technologies. It must act now before the next rainy day.
State of play
Automotive manufacturing has largely revolved around the assembly line process, which was first introduced by Henry Ford in 1913. Not only did it change automotive, it revolutionised manufacturing entirely, and remains dominant in many operations globally, featuring a mix of automated and manual approaches.
The success of the assembly line cannot be questioned, but car manufacturers and factory planners have, for some time, been looking at alternatives for this highly efficient but also inflexible technology. You don’t just make part of a car; you make all of it or none at all. So when a crisis occurs, and humans are removed from the equation completely, everything comes to a grinding halt. And the industry itself—including the raw materials, constructing the final product and transporting it to be sold—is in essence a form of assembly line. So if there’s an issue at any stage, just one, there is naturally a knock-on effect.
This means a real paradigm shift, given how much the industry has relied on these methods to this day. But while there was a thought about how to change the approach before, the crisis will have multiplied this exponentially. There is now a need for producing cars that are less reliant on humans being in direct contact with the assembly line—the process needs to be far more agile, resilient and flexible.
You don’t just make part of a car; you make all of it or none at all. So when a crisis occurs, and humans are removed from the equation completely, everything comes to a grinding halt
There is clearly a calling for a more robotics-led approach, which will allow companies to realign and retrain employees into supervisory roles. Robots that can keep going no matter the crisis faced. Sounds great in theory, but how can we just stop everything and bring robotics in safely at the drop of a hat? The answer lies in open source.
Why open source
Traditionally, when looking at what goes into the car itself, technology initiatives in the automotive industry have tended to be highly fragmented, with car makers favouring proprietary technology and in-house developments, to retain as much competitive advantage as possible. As this approach becomes obsolete in the new connected car era, we find this change relates to the processes that go into manufacturing too. New technologies, such as robotics and the software that supports it, are creating complex environments that would be a struggle for a single company to implement and manage on its own. The industry must take steps together.
More broadly though, what the landscape needs is a heterogeneous ecosystem of several different parties—each an expert in their own niche—working together to advance common goals in production output. Such cross-industry coalitions foster a culture of cooperation and define common standards, aimed at accelerating the development and adoption of new manufacturing technologies.
Turning things around
As a result, Linux and ROS (Robot Operating System), have become the go-to platforms for robotics innovation and now automotive as well. This has allowed more experts to contribute to advances and has enabled auto makers to harness the superior economics, faster software cycles and more reliable codebases of open source.
The vast majority of robotics is based on ROS. Its flexibility and ease-of-use make it perfectly suited to a wide array of robotics applications—particularly in manufacturing—and is a natural fit for those seeking to roboticise their approach in the automotive sector. Out of disaster comes progress and recovery.
New technologies, such as robotics and the software that supports it, are creating complex environments that would be a struggle for a single company to implement and manage on its own. The industry must take steps together
A largely roboticised assembly line would change human beings’ roles as ‘workers’. Moving into supervisory and/or freshly created roles, much of which can be done remotely, we can find new innovations within manufacturing and the industry as a whole. This will also allow automotive companies to become more agile and able to transition quickly, moving in new directions when uncertainty arises and without the need for too many boots on ground.
Building from the base
This desired flexibility is further supported by the use of owned robotics app stores, where brands can tap into software to increase the purpose of their robotics hardware, creating their own app stores to consistently modify what their hardware can produce. This will enable all companies to prepare for the highest and lowest levels of demand, to fully optimise their robotic workforce, and be ready for any unforeseen. Downtime at a minimum in the best and worst of times.
Much like our own society, robots can benefit from the output of a collective. Working together, we can often maximise our strengths and mask individual weaknesses. Known as swarm robotics, this can keep the strengths of the assembly line alive, ensuring efficiency with a multi-skilled workforce across man and machine.
While there will naturally be apprehensions around adoption, particularly as it pertains to safety, there needn’t be. Mixed criticality, where a system has two or more distinct levels, where safety and non-safety functions run on the same pieces of hardware to maximise efficiency, solves this problem. This will allow companies to consistently recover and create whilst knowing their technology is safe, whether it’s during the manufacturing process or in the final car their customers drive away with.
The long drive
As with any major shift in traditional operations and manufacturing, it will not happen overnight. As well as putting in the actual hardware and software structures into place we also need to introduce education and understanding. Trust comes from familiarity and only by interacting with technology in places where it previously didn’t exist will we see more widespread adoption.
Automation will allow for humans to find new purposes in the workplace, evolving at speed, whilst knowing that they are doing so safely and responsibly. It’s hard to know what is waiting round the corner, but we do know the automotive industry needs to be better prepared for what it will face there. By combining these new roles with open source robotics, it will have more than a fighting chance.
About the author: Sohini Bianka Roy is Product Manager at Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu