The factory of the future will be digital, flexible, and even multi-brand

The Center for Automotive Research’s Abhay Vadhavkar discusses four important trends for the factory of the future: digitalisation, HMI developments, factory sizes and 3D printing. By Xavier Boucherat

What are some of the principle ways the car factory of the future will differ from today’s vehicle assembly facilities? Abhay Vadhavkar is Director, Materials & Manufacturing Technology, at the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research (CAR). There can be little doubt, he says, that tomorrow’s plants will be very different, transformed by connectivity, improved human-machine interfaces (HMI) and the further automation of logistics. Driving these, he adds, are the twin needs for improved efficiency to stay competitive, and for greater flexibility to meet the changing needs and preferences of the consumer.

Data matters

One of the most discussed transformations is the ongoing proliferation of connectivity technologies in the manufacturing environment, which will allow for the increased gathering and interpolation of data. Data can be an abstract concept at the best of times, but the leveraging of huge quantities of information underpins much of what the industry expects from Industry 4.0 and beyond, he says: improved predictive maintenance, self-adjusting robots and intelligent logistics flows will all be enabled by Big Data.

The concept itself has been around for many years, but it is only relatively recently that processing power is reaching a stage where it can take on the gargantuan task of Big Data. “Computer power is still rapidly increasing,” he says, “meaning that manufacturers can now enact strategies, bringing in data from across the factory floor, as well as incoming and outgoing materials.”

Being able to reproduce tool parts for a quality assembly can be done very quickly with additive manufacturing. We are now potentially dealing in hours, rather than perhaps weeks of work at a machine shop

What automakers must be wary of is overreliance on the data. “Automakers must still be able to get on the factory floor and see what is going on with their own eyes. I don’t think there’s any substitute for that,” he warns. “There could be those who rely exclusively on the data and not feel so inclined to go the source and get their hands dirty.”

Screen time

Another important development will be that of HMI, and in particular, augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) technologies. This will bring several benefits, particularly in the areas of training and maintenance. VR could train operators far more quickly than traditional methods through repeatable and adjustable simulations, comparable to what is done in the aerospace industry with pilots. “If you can simulate crashes and breakdowns in the virtual world, that’s much quicker and cheaper,” says Vadhavkar. Volkswagen Group employees reportedly have access to over 30 simulation programmes via HTC Vive VR equipment and a ‘Digital Reality Hub’.

It could be that the mega-factories of the future are not run by the automakers, but by contract manufacturers such as Magna Steyr. These will produce multiple brands of vehicles—Jaguars, Audis or BMWs—on the same line

Meanwhile, AR will enable sophisticated levels of preventive maintenance, in which an operator will be able to pull up a machine’s details on a digital device and receive step-by-step instructions on how to fix a problem. “This might take a tenth of the time needed for an off-site expert to arrive and perform their own repairs,” suggests Vadhavkar.

Both technologies will provide much needed efficiency boosts at a time where factories are aiming to work with smaller staff sizes. “We are now moving away from large factories hiring three or four thousand people,” he suggests. “This may have been the case in the 1990s, but we do not see it any more, particularly with more automation and the arrival of co-bots.”

Co-bots, he affirms, are quickly becoming a reality for automakers who recognise potential for return on investment. Even the Union of Auto Workers (UAW), he says, sees collaborative technology in a positive light. “The UAW is rightfully interested in protecting its members,” he says, “but they are now much more open to the idea of robots working side by side with people. They see, for example, that they have the ability to react should they come close or make contact with a worker.”

Automakers must still be able to get on the factory floor and see what is going on with their own eyes. I don’t think there’s any substitute for that. There could be those who rely exclusively on the data and not feel so inclined to go the source and get their hands dirty

Long-term, whilst Vadhavkar does expect the number of workers with jobs in plants to decrease, the need for people with technical knowledge and know-how, he says, is likely to grow. Production work will focus on the creation of software-enabled machines that are as flexible as possible.

Big and small

As far as the size of future factories is concerned, Vadhavkar sees two different trends on the horizon: the flexible, multi-brand mega-factory, and smaller assembly facilities from the major manufacturers. “It could be that the mega-factories of the future are not run by the automakers, but run by contract manufacturers such as Magna Steyr. These will produce multiple brands of vehicles—Jaguars, Audis or BMWs—on the same line.”

This, he explains, is because the larger automakers are most adept at high volume production, often in the range of hundreds of thousands of units a year. When it comes to producing lower volumes—anything below 20,000 units, he suggests—manufacturing efficiency drops. But niche vehicles can be profitable for automakers, and could become even more so moving forward. Contract manufacturing on a flexible line therefore becomes attractive. “If Magna runs a line that can produce five different models at around 20,000 units each, suddenly the numbers are back up to scale,” he says.

At the same time, Vadhavkar predicts the arrival of many smaller assemblies run by automakers, made possible by relatively low investment costs coupled with flexible line technology. These might be dedicated to components and sub-assemblies which, in turn, will ship their output to larger factories.

Additive advantage

The rise of 3D printing represents one of the other major ways in which the car factory will evolve. Increasing demand for vehicle customisation is challenging automakers to implement more flexibility on the line, and additive manufacturing of series parts could help deliver this.

If you can simulate crashes and breakdowns in the virtual world, that’s much quicker and cheaper

But additive manufacturing will also bring significant benefits for tooling. On the one hand, digital data will be able to produce some physical parts without any tooling whatsoever. Tooling accounts for a sizeable amount of the lead time involved in any vehicle production programme, and so the time saved is significant.

Where tooling is still required for parts, additive manufacturing has the potential to produce spare tool parts, particularly where tooling is prone to wear such as in cases where there is continuous contact with materials. “Being able to reproduce these for a quality assembly can be done very quickly with additive manufacturing,” says Vadhavkar. “We’re now potentially dealing in hours, rather than perhaps weeks of work at a machine shop.” Audi, GM and Ford are among those now exploring options in the field, he adds, and Japanese automakers are not far behind. Like many aspects of future vehicle manufacturing, he concludes, this is something that is happening today, at greater speed than might be expected.

Automotive World’s ‘Special report: ‘What to expect from the car factory of the future‘ is now available to download

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