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Automobile Production Without Assembly Line

Smart Factory: Audi's Car Production of the Future

| Author / Editor: Silvano Böni / Alexander Stark

Will assembly lines soon be a thing of the past in the automotive industry? At least according to Audi and its vision of an intelligent factory of the future, it is likely to play only a minor role.

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The series production of Audi’s electric drives has officially started in Györ. On a surface of 8,500 square meters, electric motors are produced by means of a novel approach: modular assembly.
( Source: Audi AG )

Three years ago, Audi presented the "Smart Factory 2035": a factory of the future, without assembly lines, but with modern and flexible production stations. At least in part, the Ingolstadt-based company has already implemented its vision. At the newly opened production plant for electric motors at Audi Hungary in Györ, the automobile manufacturer presented a completely new production concept: modular assembly. As outlined in its vision, production takes place at production stations. Parts are transported between the stations by unmanned systems. Driverless transport systems, which are controlled by an intelligent IT system, supply the stations with the required goods. Around 400 electric drives can thus be produced per day — by only 100 employees.

First insights into modern engine production and the "Smart Factory 2035" are shown in the picture gallery:


Vision of the "Smart Factory 2035"

A production hall of an automobile manufacturer that has no assembly lines? Almost unimaginable. Since Henry Ford perfected assembly line production at the beginning of the 20th century, practically no modern car plant has operated without interlinked conveyor systems. The advantages are obvious: shorter distances, space-saving design, shorter production times, and thus a reduction in production costs. This has been working wonderfully for decades. A large series with a high degree of standardization can hardly be produced more efficiently than with Ford's approach. But in times of ever greater individualization, the classic assembly line may soon be obsolete, according to the German automobile manufacturer Audi.

Unlimited Individualization

It used to be easier in the past. The Ford Model T was only available in one version and all models were black. Nowadays the individualization of one's own vehicle is hardly limited. This also has consequences for production. Already when a drive is selected, different approaches are necessary. Today, buyers can choose between a combustion engine or electric drive, and soon perhaps also a fuel cell system. Whether white or red paint, leather seats or Alcantara covers, automatic air-conditioning and a premium sound system, no car is like another. This freedom of choice for the buyer leads to more work for the car manufacturers and demands flexible production solutions. Audi's approach to tackling this problem is a kind of Smart Factory.

The clever minds of the Ingolstadt-based company thought about what the smart factory should look like in 2035 at an early stage. The work is allocated according to content to a specific station, each of which is a kind of mini workshop. Whether premium SUV, the stylish city car or the electric convertible, each vehicle takes its individual route through the production halls. Autonomous, driverless transport systems move the cars through various construction stages. In the car body station, the required parts come directly from the 3D printer. One station further down, an employee installs the drive units with the help of a cobot. At another station, the parts for the interior are manufactured just-in-time, which the buyer of the vehicle has chosen only hours before. The installation follows its production in the same mini workshop.

Controlled Chaos

From the outside, the factory of the future must look like pure chaos. Like beetles, the transport systems seem to buzz through the wide halls from station to station without apparent logic. Flying drones serve as fast transporters and bring missing parts.

Chaos? Far from it, every transport robot and every drone is in constant exchange with the other companions and the tower. The latter is the brain of the factory, the Big Data Centre, which keeps track of everything. The tower receives information about every machine, every robot, every transport system in real time, its location, what it is doing and what needs to be done next. Nevertheless, each vehicle is responsible for itself and must think for itself. The transport system must know of its own accord where it must or may not go. If, for example, the vehicle needs a steering wheel, but the respective station is currently occupied, a query is sent to the next station. If this is available, the seats are installed first, and then it is doubling back to the steering wheel station. Speaking of seats: in the future, seats will be adapted precisely to the respective driver using a body scanner. The hour-long holiday journeys will then no longer cause back pain.

Focus on People

Anyone who fears that Audi's future factory buildings will be deserted is mistaken. In the Smart Factory as a whole, the employee tips the scales. Wherever possible, highly qualified workers are supported by mechanical helpers, but most importantly the workload is reduced.

Unfortunately, demographic change is not stopping at car manufacturers. While robots screw, carry and weld, the focus of the employee’s job will shift towards e planning and controlling activities.

Mastering Big Data

The entire smart factory concept is still a vision of the future and numerous technological steps are still necessary before such a factory could function smoothly. The control of large amounts of data is of central importance. Already, every Audi screwdriver station compiles a gigabyte of data to document that every screw has been tightened correctly. When all machines are equipped with this degree of intelligence and communicate with each other for the first time, these data volumes multiply x-fold. The tower should be able to process this enormous amount in real time, otherwise the chaos in the factory would be perfect. Such a supercomputer, which would manage all of this, does not exist yet.

Robotics, too, has yet to take a step forward. Although the first collaborating robots are slowly moving into the factory halls, it will be a few years before they will have the necessary fine motor skills and intelligence to be able to work safely with humans on a large scale. But one thing is already certain: the factory of the future will and must come, only in this way will competitiveness be maintained and the numerous, ever increasing individual wishes can be fulfilled.

This article was first published by Schweizer MaschinenMarkt

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