Continuing just-auto/QUBE’s series of interviews with tier one component suppliers, we spoke to Ian Simmons, Vice President, Business Development, Corporate R&D, Magna International about Industry 4.0, virtual reality (VR) technologies and its venturing strategy.

We are hearing about a new wave of collaborative robots in tomorrow’s factories. What is your view and how is Magna responding to that?

We presented publically several times our view of ‘smart factories’, a euphemism for Industry 4.0. We believe that, in terms of the increased use of collaborative robotics, connectivity and safety are the two major enablers. The safety aspect is clearly very important wherever you have humans interacting with robotics. And that is one of the things that we are looking carefully at.

We also see it as being augmenting the requirements of our labour force. There are certain conditions and tasks which are physically difficult, challenging or repetitive. The addition of robotics will improve the overall efficiency. So we see a lot of the robotic applications as being supplemental, not replacement. So that is gathering pace.

What with developments in AI into the manufacturing environment, sensing systems are now very reliable which means we have a high degree of confidence of a safe environment where humans and robots are working together. And then in terms of connectivity, we are starting to gather this data together to offer continuous improvement. So all of this is basically underway. It has not been heavily deployed as yet. But I think that there are cases where we will see these come as trials in factories any time soon.

So would you call Magna a front-runner in this area?

I think we are certainly keeping up to date with what is going on. We have invested in some technologies that we believe will be an enabler for us in the future. It is difficult to know what our competitors are doing but we believe that we are right at the forefront in terms of applying these technologies into manufacturing.

Bringing that together, what does Industry 4.0 mean?

It is bringing the connectivity experience as a consumer into the industrial world. Collaborative robotics is one aspect. Connectivity of all the systems and, if you like, the industrial Internet of Things rather than the consumer IoT is going to make a lot of difference in terms of how you can manage data, information.

“As a headline, Industry 4.0 is about advanced robotics, connectivity, industrial IoT and AI.”

AI is also controlling things like logistics, manufacturing processes will again add a level of sophistication that is currently not been available. So, I think as a headline, [Industry 4.0] is advanced robotics, connectivity, industrial IoT and AI. Although there are nine different segments to it, those are the ones that are really going to move the industry forward. And it will cascade over time. The larger organisations will start off with it and over time it will gradually cascade into the tiered suppliers because they will start to see the benefit of it.

Where does Virtual Reality fit into that?

Where you have complex manufacturing, where you are planning for it, VR is valuable to you in order to really interrogate information about manufacturing environments and processes in real time.

Also, [in terms of] training, maintenance, fault finding and causing, where you have got a complex environment in front of you, an overlay of VR can be very helpful in identifying what you are looking at, historical information on root causes of where problems have been previously, assembly tasks, etc. It can help you guide through that difficult assembly task where an operator is struggling at looking at an environment where, in many cases, is very similar from one to the other but has different requirements in terms of fit, finish and function.

So I think those are the areas that you will see first but, I am sure as more people get used to having additive technology, there will be incremental applications for VR. And as these systems become more lightweight and integrated into everyday apparel, you will see more applications.

The automotive market tends to be an early adopter of disruptive technologies, such as automation and robotics. Is this what makes the industry a ripe target for Virtual Reality?

I think that because of the implications in automotive, we have very set systems, methodologies and processes that are steeped in a lot of development money.  It takes time for these things to be adopted because if you get it wrong and it starts to impact your efficiency or quality, the implications in a highly regulated industry like automotive can be very expensive.

Certainly, in terms of advanced R&D and engineering, we are early adopters but with deployment there is a degree of caution because once it is deployed then if you have got it wrong then it becomes extremely disruptive for your business. That is why you see, in terms of true deployment, a degree of caution.

From your standpoint, do you foresee a shift in recruitment at Magna toward attracting graduates with game design degrees?

We are already seeing people that have simulation capabilities coming into our industry because we do a huge amount of simulation technology and virtual development, both in design and in manufacturing. The game design is very interesting because as we get more and more simulation work, I think there are applications there and if someone had qualifications in the gaming side and visual side as well as engineering, it would probably be the best of both worlds. And we start to see people crossing over between the two now. So they are beginning to merge. And people are beginning to see automotive as an application for that technology whereas before it was not an immediate area you would have thought that perhaps we should apply things to.

We understand that Magna adopts an ‘open for business’ approach to attracting innovation from outside. Could you explain what this means and your venturing strategy?

“Open for business is really a mindset for Magna … There is so much innovation potential out there that we want to proactively engage with others in order to move that forward.”

Open for business is really a mindset for Magna, and trying to communicate to all areas of academia, start-ups and anywhere that has innovation is that we are encouraging people to reach out to us. We do listen, we do want to engage. There is so much innovation potential out there that we want to proactively engage with outside companies and entities in order to move that forward. We recognise what it takes in order to engage with those companies and, in particular, not to be disruptive to start-ups and other early stage companies who have a business to run without a company like Magna suddenly bringing them to a halt. So it is really [about] attracting innovation in all manners. Through Cambridge and other places, we have reached out through events, conferences and global corporate venturing meetings in order to make people aware of Magna.

RocketSpace is a good example of a mechanism as it gives us access to pre-screened start-up companies that have synergies of technology and innovation that we think are relevant to Magna in the future. Typically as an engagement, we engage as a strategic. Any technology that we support or invest in, the whole objective is that technology has a root to getting into one of our product segments and finding its way into a technology that we can share with one of our OEMs. That is the whole basis of why we innovate and conduct venturing.

RocketSpace provides a West Coast or Silicon Valley mentality which is good for us to learn from that because we participate more and more in businesses from Silicon Valley. It also helps by the pre-screening process to distil down technologies that are of specific interest to Magna. And that makes us more efficient in terms of what we do. They are a very good organisation to collaborate with in terms of trying to understand the needs and requirements and how to work with early stage start-ups.

It is as much about collaborating, supporting and encouraging start-ups through the likes of RocketSpace as investing in them?

We do not have any prescriptive model of how we engage. The range of things we have done previously is that we have performed our own start-ups, invested in companies, proof of concepts and projects. So each opportunity that we see in a technology that is of interest is structured to be a win-win. It has to be of benefit and meaningful to the company that we are working with and it has to be meaningful for Magna in terms of how we deploy our resources and funds in order to ensure we get the best out of it. As long as it meets those requirements then there is no particular way we would pursue. With RocketSpace, as we go through the process and come to the conclusion that we would benefit from a partnership, acquisition, venture or an investment then Magna would not hesitate to move forward on that and engage accordingly.

Turning to the shared economy, what does the trend for shared mobility mean for Magna in terms of its products, technologies and manufacturing?

For Magna, our strengths include innovation and manufacturing technology and scale. So whatever particular requirement that a customer will have in the future for a product that meets a particular specification and have it manufactured at scale then Magna will be able to respond to that on a global basis.

When the industry is going to adopt rapidly sharing of technology where we are talking about individuals owning cars but organisations or industry owning vehicles that are shared or semi-autonomous, I think the jury is still out. Bear in mind that we are now starting to take orders for vehicles that will go into production in 2020, and in that basis design form they will be there for the next eight or nine years, vehicles, as we see today, will exist for the foreseeable future. Whether vehicles, because they are used more often become replaced more often or whether the specification for the product is increased to counter the increased usage and mileage they do then I think the jury is still out. It will all be decided on a business case but it is not clear yet which way that will go.

Is it reasonable to assume that by 2030 mirrorless cars would be commonplace thanks to advances in the applications of cameras?

We have technologies that will support all of the various scenarios with mirrors, as they exist today, with the additional functionality and capability of cameras. We have got our 360 and more developments on rear cameras coming. But because mirrors are a legislative requirement in terms of safety and historically changing the FMVS regulations take a considerable amount of time, it is very difficult. Your guess is as good as mine in terms of when [mirrorless] is likely to come. The general consensus is nothing before 2035. Whatever happens, we are ready for it.

ClearView meets all the requirements of a mirror and gives a better field of view, with a display of either side of the vehicle. In fact, you can put the display in various places. It meets all the requirements of a mirror. The augmented scene in ClearView provides the best of both worlds.

We hear that Magna, working with Grupo Antolin and FCA, has pushed back the technical boundaries of lightweighting by creating a car door with a new architecture that is almost half the weight of an average car door. Was there a single ‘Eureka’ moment in this development or a series of lightweighting ideas, carried over from recent projects?

“Starting with a clean sheet of paper, we were quite surprised that we managed to come up with a door design that offered so many benefits.”

This project was a continuation of the MMLV [Multi-Material Lightweight Vehicle] that we undertook. In terms of the Eureka moment, the team collectively decided to look at doors right back to their origins, i.e. geometry and physics. We considered what is legislated in terms of safety and durability requirements and what 3D geometry and space have we got to fill in and look at the functional requirements of a door. We matched that with a design that basically supported 70 percent of the doors in production today. So it is a basically a frame behind glass design and applicable to both front and rear doors. And then having started from basic principles and gone forward by ignoring process constraints and anything that is unique, the team came up with a design that did not use any unique or special materials but meets the necessary processing requirements in terms of being able to get the door module inside the door and use the Magna eLatch system. And then with a lot of simulation work, in terms of what the structure needs in terms of side impact and durability requirements, we also used Gorilla Glass, we were quite surprised that we managed to come up with a door design that, if you start with a clean sheet of paper that offered such benefits. I think it encourages the automotive industry to take a step backwards and think about doing things differently rather than business as usual in order to achieve that sort of weight saving.

See also Connected vehicle technologies – forecasts to 2031