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  1. Interview
August 12, 2021

The factory of the future

As manufacturers grapple with the new realities of EV and hybrid powertrains, factories need to be able to adapt quickly, with minimal disruption. Joerg Reger, MD of ABB Robotics’ automotive OEM business line provides his thoughts on how the industry is re-equipping for an uncertain future.

By Matthew Beecham

What is driving the uncertainty over future manufacturing requirements? 

Three factors have combined: increasing model diversity; accelerating technology developments and unpredictable consumer demand.

During the current decade, the market will be split between IC engines, fuel cells, EVs and hybrids, running on gasoline, diesel, alternative fuels (including hydrogen) and battery power. The manufacturing volume split for the different variants will depend on such factors as regional legislation on emissions and taxation, consumer appetite for the product and the pace of technical development. Even the relationship between the end-user and their vehicle will be challenged through concepts like MAAS (mobility as a service) in which personal ownership of a vehicle is no longer required.

The supply chain also faces uncertainty, for example as the preferred battery technology changes. Current battery packs are assembled from modules, which themselves contain multiple cells. Manufacturers are divided over whether to buy in cells or modules from suppliers. Future batteries are expected to evolve from being replaceable items to becoming sealed for life, like smartphones. As cell-to-pack technology becomes established, modules will no longer be required, reducing cost and accelerating the move towards battery assembly in-house, within the vehicle assembly plant.

This combination of circumstances makes it incredibly challenging for any manufacturer to confidently commit to the long-term facility investment required to deliver the next generation of vehicles profitably, at the required volume.

How can manufacturers respond? 

Commercial survival in future will depend on flexibility and agility; the capacity to switch production volumes and product mix rapidly, while remaining cost-competitive. This requires a change in mindset from the customary approach to facility planning.

The most effective way to accommodate uncertainty is to switch from conventional ‘long line’ production to manufacturing cells which can be quickly brought on stream or reprogrammed and re-purposed, to adapt to fluctuation in demand. The traditional line may still be appropriate for final assembly but would be supported by flexible cells that do not require changes to the overall facility and, more importantly, can be re-purposed without loss of manufacturing output.

The evolution of propulsion technology is now so rapid that today’s optimum powertrain may become uncompetitive within just a year or two; the manufacturing solutions chosen for that powertrain at the outset may have to be re-visited as the vehicles themselves are re-designed. Fundamental decisions, such as ‘kitting’ assemblies at suppliers or completing them in-house may be reversed. This level of change would be unthinkable with traditional dedicated facilities.

Doesn’t it take too long to accomplish such a major change in manufacturing? 

We help manufacturers cope with the pace of change and the continual reduction in new product lead times by making extensive use of ‘digital twins’ of our manufacturing cells, created in our simulation environment, RobotStudio. This means simulating every aspect of a cell’s operation virtually, then studying the effects of any changes to validate the consistency and quality of the output.

RobotStudio allows much quicker calibration of a new facility, with shorter commissioning time, and means the customer can bring their product on stream quickly and seamlessly. It also enables a customer to investigate ‘what if’ scenarios, to identify how changes in product mix or architecture can best be managed and how any knock-on effects within the plant can be minimized.

We recommend starting small and scaling up. Our cellular robotized manufacturing structure provides smart solutions based upon a combination of applications for each cell. The first cell can be used to validate the approach and set production standards, then replicated as many times as necessary to keep pace with the required rates of production as demand increases.

This approach helps both with ramp up and ramp down, and ensures flexibility is retained throughout the plant’s life since cells can be decommissioned, moved or repurposed.

Apart from increasing manufacturing flexibility, are there any developments that can help improve efficiency and productivity? 

A revolution is set to occur as computing power accelerates by an order of magnitude on the shop floor, connecting and monitoring every component. For example, the spray nozzles on our automated painting robots have RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) and vibration sensors, to sense if they are misfiring. This means conditions that could cause faults in the finished article can be identified before they develop too far and can be corrected. Greater computing power and communication also permits increased customization of individual vehicle specifications to be readily accommodated within the manufacturing process.

Automation is also reaching additional areas of vehicle manufacture such as final assembly and trim, and body painting, where our PixelPaint process permits waste-free automated painting requiring no masking and can even deliver complex custom graphics in a single pass. PixelPaint provides the scope for reductions in both capital and operating costs, for example eliminating the need for an extra paint shop to do a two-tone application or the paint wastage associated with electrostatic painting.

The most recent development in robotic automation has been the growth in collaborative robot (cobot) applications in which a robot works in synergy with its human counterpart, taking advantage of their individual strengths. Advances in safety and control have made it possible to operate suitably designed robots alongside human workers, without screens or fences to inhibit their interaction. This has opened up a new range of possibilities for enhanced productivity, quality and collaboration, for both existing and new robot users.

Some of these developments sound pretty far-reaching. How can manufacturers avoid the inevitable pitfalls of embracing new technology and practices? 

Automakers and their major suppliers have traditionally evolved cautiously, through evolutionary steps. The investment cost associated with vehicle manufacture has always necessitated caution in new model and facility planning. One way of mitigating the risk is to collaborate with an expert global partner. But to maximise the benefit, the dialogue must begin at an early stage of planning. Typically, at ABB we work in close partnership with customers, not merely supplying systems but contributing to the manufacturing strategy and definition of the facility and, ultimately, helping to deliver a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

The bottom line is that ensuring production facilities are future-proofed and can adapt to fluctuations in product mix and volumes may make the difference between corporate success or failure, such is the current level of change in the automotive market.

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