The automobile industry is facing fundamental changes. Alongside the electrification of the powertrain and autonomous driving, it is above all digitalisation that is driving this process of change. This combination of the physical and digital is often referred to as “Industrie 4.0”. Networking the entire value chain in real time is already more than just a vision for Mercedes-Benz. And the focus here is always on people – customers and employees.
“All major trends in the automobile industry are already driven by digitalisation, or are driving it themselves. Our aim is to be the world’s leading, most innovative automobile manufacturer when it comes to digital technologies, too,” says Dr. Dieter Zetsche, Chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler AG and Head of Mercedes-Benz Cars.
“At Mercedes-Benz, we use the term ‘Industrie 4.0’ to describe the digitalisation of the entire value chain, from design and development to production, where the term has its origin, and finally to sales and service,” says Markus Schäfer, Member of the Divisional Board Mercedes-Benz Cars, Manufacturing and Supply Chain Management, Daimler AG. “For us at Daimler, there is no question that the digital revolution will fundamentally change our industry. This applies to the methods by which we develop, plan and produce our vehicles. It applies to the way we make contact with our customers. And not least, it can be experienced through our products themselves.”
The potential of the digital revolution is huge: If man, machine and industrial processes are intelligently networked, individual products of high quality can be created more rapidly, and production and manufacturing costs can be made competitive. Flexibility is another reason why Mercedes-Benz is actively helping to shape the digital revolution: The worldwide demand for passenger cars, commercial vehicles and mobility concepts is increasing. At the same time, the requirements of customers around the globe are becoming increasing diverse. While Mercedes-Benz was able to cover most customer requirements with just three basic passenger car models in the 1970s, there are now ten times as many. At the Sindelfingen plant, for example, it is extremely rare for two identical examples of the S-Class to leave the production lines. There is also an increasingly wide range of drive variants – alongside petrol and diesel engines, hybrid and fully electric drive systems are increasingly popular.
And the innovation cycles are increasingly shorter. All this culminates in the vision of Mercedes-Benz that automobile production will change from large-scale to “one-off” production, where every car is built to individual customer requirements.
The working world of the future – focus on people
As a result of the digital transformation along the entire value chain, the working world and production processes are changing rapidly and comprehensively. Today, an assembly step is generally performed either by employees or by robots, which are placed behind protective fences for safety reasons and can be used in other production areas only with a great deal of effort. At Mercedes-Benz, the aim is real cooperation between robots and people (MRC) under the control of people. The direct cooperation between people and robots means the cognitive superiority of people is ideally combined with the power, endurance and reliability of robots. It facilitates different objectives: higher quality, increased productivity, new possibilities for ergonomic and age-conformant work. MRC is not aimed at the maximum mechanisation or full automation of activities.
Markus Schäfer: “In all changes, the focus will always be on people as customers and employees. People’s experiences, creativity and flexibility will still be indispensable in many areas of automotive production. The factory of the future will in no way be without people.”
Michael Brecht, Chairman of the General Works Council, adds, “Technical changes are coming. To shape these properly, we need a new humanisation policy. The decisive factor is how to design the relationship between autonomy and control in the man-machine interaction. Either: people will tell the machines what to do. Or: people will be told what to do by the machines. The key is that we can prepare people very well through qualification.”
The smart factory – the completely networked value chain
The ‘smart factory’ is the centrepiece of the digitalisation of the entire company. In the smart factory, the products, machines and the entire environment are networked with each other and connected to the internet. Integration of the real world into a functional, digital world enables a so-called “digital twin” to be created, which allows the real-time representation of processes, systems and entire production shops.
“Digitalisation enables us to make our products more individual, and production more efficient and flexible. The challenge is to plan for the long term while remaining able to respond rapidly to customer wishes and market fluctuations,” explains Markus Schäfer, Member of the Divisional Board Mercedes-Benz Cars, Manufacturing and Supply Chain Management, Daimler AG.
Mercedes-Benz is following five major objectives with the smart factory:
- Greater flexibility: The smart factory allows production to respond even faster to global market fluctuations and changing, even more individual customer demand. Digital production also makes it easier to produce increasingly complex products.
- Greater efficiency: Efficient use of resources such as energy, buildings or material stocks is a decisive competitive factor; a completely digital process chain also means constant inventory control: components can be identified at any time and anywhere. Production facilities can be controlled from anywhere.
- Greater speed: Flexible production processes, simplified modification of existing production facilities and the installation of new facilities allow simpler, more efficient manufacturing processes. This in turn allows shorter innovation cycles, and product innovations can be transferred to more model series in a shorter time (time-to-market).
- Attractive working environment: Active interaction between man and machine, also using new operating interfaces, will change the working environment in many areas, e.g. in training and ergonomics. Taking demographic changes into account, this opens up new perspectives when creating new working and lifestyle models.
- Smart logistics: from vehicle configuration and ordering by the customer to the definition of required parts and their procurement, and then to production and delivery. To put this in visionary terms: “Once ordered, a vehicle looks for its production location and machine by itself.”
Mercedes-Benz is already able now to digitally simulate the production process from the press plant to final assembly, and therefore to master the complexity of modern automobiles and their manufacture: for assembly alone, around 4000 individual processes are examined for technical feasibility long before series production commences.
Stage by stage, the smart factory concept is being realised in the global production network of Mercedes-Benz. The first two stages have already been clearly defined and substantially achieved:
- Mercedes-Benz now has global component standards, a standardised systems architecture and standardised automation, regulation and control technology.
- Wherever investments are made, globally standardised technology modules are used in robotics and production processes.
The next steps on the way to the production of the future are globally applicable equipment modules suited to product modules, and standardised working strategies. Before the end of the decade, this specific vision of the smart factory will come together in the form of a reference factory designed completely for the methods and processes described above.
Many processes that sounded like science fiction just a short time ago are already or will soon be in use in production:
- 3D printing/Additive Manufacturing: Use in rapid prototyping (e.g. sand-casting moulds for engines), protective covers (e.g. for tooling in man-robot cooperation), tools (e.g. gripping elements)
- Human Augmentation/Mobile devices in production: New ways of calibrating head-up displays (from mid-2016), use of tablets for controlling robots inside vehicles (“InCarRob”) via Wi-Fi (worker instructs robots in headliner assembly)
- Machine learning/machines assist their users: The path to be followed by lightweight robots can be generated by “demonstration”, i.e. the worker leads the robots and the machine learns the path
- Production Data Cloud/worldwide availability of production data: For example, as the lead plant for compact models, Rastatt is able to access production data from all the other plants in the worldwide production network, e.g. Kecskemét, and would even be able to reprogram the robots in operation there.
Scientific backup on the way to the digital factory is provided by the ARENA 2036 project (Active Research Environment for the Next Generation of Automobiles): This is a research campus where Daimler conducts research into the future of production and lightweight design with partners from the scientific community and industry. The project will continue to the year 2036, when the automobile celebrates its 150th birthday.
The TecFactory – from the idea, through testing to series production
Daimler is a leader in innovative production technologies. For example, the company was the first in the automobile industry to recognise the potential of the sensitive lightweight robot and successfully test it for series production. Mercedes-Benz tests such new production concepts and ideas in the TecFactory in Sindelfingen. Numerous applications have already made their way from an idea, through testing and into series production. They include innovative logistical solutions using driverless transport systems (DTS).
One particular part of the TecFactory is the test factory. “This is where we try out the production processes of the future,” says Andreas Friedrich, Head of the Technology Factory, Mercedes-Benz Cars, Daimler AG. “In the ideal scenario, the applications go straight from here to series production. This then gives us room to try out new ideas.” The large production shop resembles an inventors’ convention: engineers and technicians are busily engaged at several workstations, operating small and medium-size robots, which grab and move components, or install components such as bodyshell grommets or sun visors.
Immediately noticeable in the test factory is the absence of protective fences, and there is open access to all workstations. “Fenceless production and man-robot cooperation (MRC) are the specialist terms used,” says Friedrich. “This new, cooperative form of working without protective fencing is possible because the latest generation of robots are sensing.” These intelligent robots use their sensors to register their immediate surroundings and detect resistance. For example, they can stop their movement sequence if there is a person within their range of activity. Or they recognise collisions with components and can pause their movements.
Sometimes direct contact between man and machine is even expressly desirable: some lightweight robots start their work after being given a slight push. Or they are literally taken in hand: the employee moves their articulated arm to the starting point of the relevant task and they get to work. In so-called “Robot Farming”, one employee will often look after several robots.
From purely an automobile manufacturer to a networked provider of mobility services
The digital revolution goes far beyond production. Mercedes-Benz is developing into a networked provider of mobility services and thus opens new markets. Already today, the mobility service car2go is the world’s largest car-sharing business with over one million users. The moovel app shows users how a wide variety of means of transport can be combined to get from A to B efficiently – whether by car2go, ride-sharing, taxi or by public transport. Mercedes-Benz has consolidated all these services under one sub-brand – Mercedes me, which makes Mercedes-Benz reachable at any time. The portfolio extends from booking a service appointment to individual networking with the customer’s own vehicle and personally configured financial services. Customers are also offered packages that go well beyond the car itself, e.g. lifestyle activities and entertainment.