The future of the factory has begun – with intelligent systems, innovative technologies, efficient structures. Now is the time to approach the issue from a completely new angle. Small groups of masterminds in Ingolstadt are gathering ideas for the Smart Factory beyond 2030.
The production line has been abandoned in this factory hall
The tried and tested ideas of an ordered, rhythmic process running in series no longer apply. Flat transport robots – so-called driverless transport systems – move in seeming chaos across the floor. They carry cars in various states of build – here, an almost finished, superluxurious Audi convertible; there, the body-in-white of a highly efficient electric SUV; and coming toward us is a stylish city car with multi-colored paintwork.
The routes taken by these hundreds of transport systems appear utterly unplanned – yet every single one of them is following precisely the higher logic of a radical new production process. All of them are on their way to their respective next stations, the so-called competence islands. In Bodyshell Manufacturing, parts come fresh from large metal printers (the huge press lines of earlier factories have largely been decommissioned). At a neighboring island – organized like a small workshop – technicians are working in collaboration with their helpful robot co-workers to install the driveline components:
electric motors, fuel-cell systems and internal combustions engines, too. At the next station, interior fittings are being made and installed on the spot – just in time. There is an inexhaustible array of leather variants and trim materials available, from which the customer made his selection just a few hours before. And because he couldn’t make his mind up on the final exterior finish, his car is coated with an innovative top coat that can be engraved by laser induction weeks or months later with lettering, logos, images – or whatever fantasy permits.
The higher order of the apparent chaos is floating quite literally in the air – in the constant data exchange between all the machines involved. The transport system knows that the next thing “its” car needs is, for example, its steering wheel and seats, and it asks the competence islands for interior fittings when there happens to be available capacity. The car is thus not following an outwardly visible production line, but instead an “inner” virtual one. The car moves from station to station, where it is “supplied” with all necessary materials and work – like an airplane that travels from airport to airport to find the ground crew awaiting its arrival wherever it goes. And, like an airport, this factory is also controlled from a tower, that huge data center that knows in real time from each machine, each car and almost every component where it is, what it is currently doing and what the next thing is that has to happen. Yet, despite its enormous computing capacity, this tower cannot control everything in detail. In this factory, the people and the machines do this autonomously or among themselves. But it is the tower that issues the build plan and ensures that the whole thing comes together.
"The higher order of the apparent chaos is floating quite literally in the air."
Despite this immense concentration of technology, ...
... this production facility is far from being without people – quite the opposite, in fact. The vast number of variants, the high level of individualization and the stringent quality standards can only be achieved with suitably highly qualified staff. But, wherever possible, they are assisted by robots that do the legwork. Ergonomics and minimum strain are the top priorities.
Employees are increasingly responsible for planning and control functions – after all, in 2035, skilled employees are valued and in high demand. The standards are equally high. Because of the extreme variety of the products, work content has become incredibly wideranging and employees are assisted by sophisticated “wearable” information systems. There could be threedimensional projections by then. They show the component in its correct installation location even before it is passed to the technician by his own personal robot assistant.
Smart Factory is very much the appropriate term for this form of production, with automation and networking on a massive scale that is still almost inconceivable today. This is where highly individualized lowvolume production runs and one-offs are made for the extremely demanding premium customers of the distant future. These are customers who want to set themselves apart, who want – even very late in the process – to be able to influence almost every single detail. And they no longer want to experience just the handover of their highly individualized car, but perhaps even its birth, too – in their Audi Smart Factory, right next to the major cities where they live.
Alois Brandt, however, is certain that the production line will not have been completely abandoned by the year 2035. As Head of Technology Development Innovation, he and his team scout for all the ideas and developments that might be considered for improved vehicle production in future. And he knows very well that the production method introduced a good one hundred years ago by Henry Ford will retain its strengths in future, too, “It will be difficult to find something more efficient for a mass-produced product with a high degree of standardization.”
Nevertheless, the customer demands made of a premium manufacturer continue to grow in the other direction. The number of variants is rising massively; equipment is becoming ever more complex and the degree of individualization ever higher.
“And this is where we are already reaching the limits of line-based production,” says Brandt, because the amount of work required for the cars on the line often differs greatly. One example is the Audi A3 Sportback e-tron with its plug-in hybrid drive.
“And this is where we are already reaching the limits of line-based production."
So that it can be produced together with all the other A3 variants, an additional loop was incorporated into the line for the assembly of the electric components. And this requirement alone will surely become considerably greater through the anticipated co-existence over many years of wide-ranging drive types. Production complexity continues to increase apace. Things were simpler in Henry Ford’s time – for a long time, his Tin Lizzy was available in only one variant and only in black.
For many years, indeed decades, the development of the car was a fairly linear process – a new vehicle generation generally meant a few more hp, a few more miles to the gallon and more comfortable seats. Things were similar in production, too – every detail was increasingly refined, but still based on the same principles as 100 years ago.
However, in both areas, many things are now reaching their limits. There is also an endless list of new functions and technologies in every model. Radical thinking is now called for – and is being advanced through new technologies like the electric car.
Alois Brandt has thus established two teams that have been tasked with thinking a good deal farther – beyond tomorrow, and perhaps even beyond the day after tomorrow – manned by specialists from various areas of Audi Production.
This is where the path to the future will be defined in a set of systematic steps, while at the same time considering the major leap forward – a new concept on the metaphorical green-field site, without existing factories, existing structures …
"Our idea is ...
... to build small and highly flexible production units exactly where the demand is,” says Felix Schwabe, the spokesperson for one of the creative teams. “Each of our factories is currently specialized for producing just a few model ranges in large volumes for supply to the entire world. In future, we could build close to the customer and therefore respond even faster to his wishes, without long wait times.”
To achieve that, each factory must be able to build each model, in accordance with the same principles and with the same flexible tools. “And then we will no longer be able to think in terms of individual technologies,” continues Alois Brandt.
The future is networked, integrated and communicative here, too. “The elimination of the production line will only be possible with completely new logistics. And the product, too, will have to be designed quite differently from the way it is today.”
By differently, he means for instance that it will have to be based more heavily on modules and that a chassis can be combined with a number of different drive types or bodies.
Yet Brandt believes that the car of 2035 will not differ so very fundamentally from that of 2015. Not just because it will still have all four wheels on the ground even 20 years from now – it will also still be made largely from metal.
Brandt sees a certain future for organic materials, such as those based on hemp, which can be processed with natural resins. “This is the only way to come some way out of the oil economy.”
There will also be a major role for the systematic recycling of old vehicles to recover raw materials. A lot can happen by the year 2035. In some ways, however, it’s not that far away – it will see the presentation of just the third successor to the new Audi A4 launched in 2015. Automotive industry cycles today are, after all, still very long.
Major technological steps are obviously still required ...
... before such a Smart Factory can actually be realized. The central issue is mastering the enormous flow of data. Already today, the production process for every Audi generates far more data than the layperson can possibly imagine.
Every single fitting station uses up one gigabyte of data per day documenting that it has correctly positioned all its fasteners. Bodyshell manufacturing for the Audi A3 occupies 200 gigabytes per day confirming that all measurements are correct and that the quality is perfect. But once all machines have been equipped with cognitive capabilities, once all the major parts of a car know for themselves that they are in good order and positioned in the correct place, then data volume of a whole new magnitude and unimaginable complexity will have to be channeled and processed.
If the tower of a factory like this ever lost the overview, the outcome would be complete chaos, which is why mastering Big Data, i.e. the way from Big Data to Smart Data, is the most critical of the key technologies for Alois Brandt.
Robotics will, of course, have to take another significant step forward; only with considerably more intelligence and a “finer touch” can these universal machines cooperate most effectively with people. Future core fields also include additive production processes – because the more parts that can be individually produced in a metal or plastic printer, the lower the requirement for sophisticated tools, parts warehousing and transportation logistics.
And then even more doors will open to individualization. A body scanner, for instance, located at the Audi Customer Center or in the Smart Factory of the future, could precisely measure the buyer of a future Audi R8 e-tron, and then the driver of the electric sports car would receive from the 3D printer a little something extra that was previously the preserve of racing professionals – his very own made-to-measure seat.
Fabian Rusitschka from Technology Development Innovation Management has been working for the past three years on the concept for the factory of the future. In 2013, he submitted the patent specification for a “production system for series production of motorized vehicles”. He is currently working with a group of colleagues from all areas, from Product Development to Purchasing, on the detail planning of how vehicle assembly could work without a production line. How many production islands would be needed, what would be the extent of the work involved, what kind of control logic would be required? “We can finally orientate ourselves around meaningful functional relationships and no longer just around fixed cycle times.”
“We are just finding out that the production- island system will be more efficient, the greater the volumes and the greater the differentiation between the cars.”
For Rusitschka, the idea is almost imperative and not just for small production runs and individual demands, “We are just finding out that the production- island system will be more efficient, the greater the volumes and the greater the differentiation between the cars.”
This is so, particularly because of the flexibility to accommodate volume fluctuations, model changes and different technologies. The ‘factory of the future’ topic is currently gaining a great deal of momentum at Audi. But it’s likely to be quite a few years before the entire Ingolstadt plant is organized around an army of driverless transport systems.
Hermann Reil (copy), Nana Rausch (illustrations)