Disrupting the auto
industry at a cellular level

Modular manufacturing cells, AGV-led logistics, and digitalization will
be some of the key elements of the automotive factory of the future.

For more than a hundred years, we have been making cars the same way. Pressed sheets of metal, which make up the car frame, move along a transfer system where humans, and more recently, robots load these parts and assemble them. There is a reason this setup worked for so long. Assembly line production, made popular by Henry Ford, allowed carmakers to roll out millions of cars, at low cost. Mostly powered by an internal. combustion engine, these cars usually had standard features and looked just like one another. 

But all this has been changing. 

The uncertainty of the world market, new emission regulations and a wave of new mobility trends are creating a fundamental shift in the way cars are made, sold and used. The need for high flexibility in volumes and models, but also in the manufacturing footprint becomes a must for the next generation of operations.

The most notable of these changes is a growing preference for electric cars over internal combustion engines (ICE) as sustainability takes on a more important role in the state and individual’s agenda. 

While the production line has evolved from using many people (below) to many robots (above), the basic linear approach is the same, which creates challenge when dealing with mass customization.

The future of the automotive factory will be an ecosystem of intelligent data used to improve current production processes and new solutions such as the racks-free production concept that can squeezeevery drop of productivity from the factory.

On the social side, car ownership itself could change with the development of car sharing. The ease of hailing cabs run by companies like Uber and Lyft is reducing the incentive for people, especially in crowded cities, to buy their own cars, while self-driving cars and increased connectivity could herald a permanent change in driving habits. 

Our customers in the auto industry have faced many challenges before, but this time the change is more significant. There are many disruptive factors in the market today that will impact the way they want to produce, sell and approach the end car users.  

For the automotive industry, these developments have added many layers of complexity in the manufacturing process. The conventional manufacturing line is simply not nimble enough to handle concepts such as batches-of-one manufacturing now demanded by the market. This has pushed up costs and dragged down productivity – two factors that are critical determinants of financial success in the industry. 

Smart factory for smart mobility

Navigating this new reality requires a fresh look at how the auto industry has traditionally made cars. The automotive factory of the future will look very little like Ford’s conveyor belt setup. Instead, concepts like racks-free production, being offered by ABB, hold the potential to dramatically increase efficiency and productivity while manufacturing a wider variety of cars at a faster rate. The modular assembly concept consists of autonomous cells that manufacture and assemble cars, supported by intelligent driverless transport systems or automated guided vehicles (AGVs) that supply parts directly kitted in the storage area to the cell and then transfer the assembled steps to the next manufacturing operation.

Unlike the transfer system technique, where the start of production of one unit is dependent on the completion of the previous one, AGVs in the modular cell concept can transport car bodies and sub-assemblies without being linked to the next assembly step. The cells are typically including from two to eight industrial robots, welding, joining or gluing equipment and a separate AGV that supports logistics tasks. 

Each cell is capable of executing a minimum of three consecutive process operations. One of these operations could be geometry or tooling equipment which ensures that the parts of the car are assembled accurately. This function is supported by automatic tool changes to enable customization so that different car models can be customized within one cell. 

Knock-on effects

For companies that supply products to the automotive industry, current market trends are making manufacturing even more challenging. Not only do they have to create different sub-assemblies for different manufacturers, each of these OEMs now have their own specifications for each model. While some equipment like presses can be used for more than one customer, as you go down to the assembly of body parts or interiors, then the equipment becomes very dedicated to that OEM. In these conditions, the autonomous cell solution with an independent and automatic logistics structure, can add immense value by increasing flexibility and reducing time.  

In the future, modular cell manufacturing will offer a host of benefits that will help companies in the auto industry boost productivity. As the cells are not dependent on each other, any downtime in one cell has a minimal effect on the entire production process, in contrast to a traditional assembly line setup. 

Also, a manufacturer can easily add or remove cells with the minimum of disruption to the overall pro-duction process. This increases the ability of the manufacturer to quickly react to changing market trends without having to overhaul the entire manufacturing process each time. 

Finally, modular cell manufacturing can positively impact worker utilization. Instead of waiting on one car after another to move along a transfer system, maintenance workers can move between cells. This will improve not only the operation but also the maintainability. A simulation by the Boston Consulting Group and simulation specialist IPO.Plan GmBH in 2018 showed that flexible cell manufacturing in-creased worker utilization by 12 percent, leading to a reduction in annual wage costs by the same magnitude . 

Digitalization for increased reliability 

The components of the automotive factory of the future are both autonomous and more connected at the same time. Industry 4.0 practices such as the use of sensors on every level and digitalization allow operators to have real-time control of all the processes that occur in the factory. Data flows through every bit of equipment, from AGVs to robots to tooling and fitting components to guide their actions seamlessly. For instance, sensors in the manufacturing cell can tell an AGV about the type of part need-ed to be transported from the storage area, instead of a human performing the task. 

Cloud-based solutions like ABB AbilityTM Connected Services can monitor a range of parameters that allow automotive manufacturers to predict maintenance schedules, save on costs, prevent unplanned downtime and increase overall productivity. In the future advanced technologies based on artificial intelligence, machine and deep learning have the potential to increase the autonomy of the manufacturing cells by enabling them to automatically adjust to evolving customization, self-diagnose and self-repair.  

Where from here? 

As mobility options evolve, the auto industry is faced with a future of ever-increasing complexity at the factory level. Embracing modular cell manufacturing offers a more efficient and flexible way of producing, built around an ecosystem of intelligent data used to improve current production processes and new solutions, such as the racks-free production concept. that can squeeze every drop of productivity from the factory by optimizing the logistic process.

Assembly line production, invented by Henry Ford, enabled carmakers to produce millions of cars at low cost. 

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