The Future of Automotive Manufacturing: Moving Towards Digital Planning and Smart Manufacturing

Article by Niranjan Thiyagarajan, Frost & Sullivan

LONDON, Sept. 13, 2012 — (PRNewswire) — With tightening margins and fierce competition in the industry, automotive manufacturers are working heavily on optimising manufacturing processes in order to reduce costs and improve flexibility and time to market. The future of automotive manufacturing is likely to focus around key terms such as "Produce on demand", "Process Standardization & Integration" and "Integrated Logistics".

From the current processes used in manufacturing the industry is expected to move towards a Digital Planning/Manufacturing with the aim of increasing efficiency without having to add personnel on the floor. On the other hand, new technologies such as Magnesium Hot Forming, Liquid Hot Isostatic Pressing, or Plasma Spray Coating amongst others are expected to find increased usage. OEMs consider body in white and powertrain manufacturing to be most important for integrating innovative technologies and processes.

Automotive manufacturers are continuously moving towards a greater degree of automation in the body assembly process. Robots can achieve higher levels of volumes and precision than their human counterparts. German OEMs for instance have achieved almost 95 per cent automation in the body in white assembly. One of the leading drivers for this shift is the safety of factory workers, as it reduces the risk of exposure to physical hazards.

Efforts focus on making body in white lighter and more modular in design and major OEMs have set clear targets on weight reduction for the future. Important to consider though is how this is expected to affect the manufacturing process itself, as suppliers develop smarter and more lighter machines that can be easily relocated throughout the assembly line and can be adapted  to work with different platforms. For example, laser welding is an important area of weight saving (22 per cent reduction in weight on the Up) and can be used to weld parts comprising different shapes and materials as well. 

Over the years the focus on powertrain manufacturing has been the switch to aluminium for the engine blocks, but already manufacturers are looking at the next wave of materials such as compacted graphite Iron. BMW for instance has developed engine blocks from a composite magnesium-aluminium alloy at its Landshut plant in Germany. With the environmental implications of manufacturing becoming ever more important, "near net shape" or "zero material loss" is increasingly heard across board rooms in the industry.

The focus is not just on reducing material however, but also on the number of operations required to manufacture components. For example, the average number of operations to manufacture a crankshaft in Europe is 15 as against 25 in China. Rising labour costs are an issue that is pushing manufacturers to a higher degree of automation, even in these emerging markets. There has also been an increased use in machines with parallel kinematic for higher flexibility on smart assembly lines.

Automotive manufacturers have to take into consideration a number of socio-political market factors to readapt manufacturing processes for the future. Frost & Sullivan expects these processes to be affected by macro factors that will challenge the future strategy of OEMs.  The implications for manufacturers are four pronged: Automotive and components as product, production process and technology.

Advanced manufacturing methods such as micro manufacturing, machine vision and smarter robots might be the tip of the ice berg as we see OEMs moving towards digital factories. The future of factories will revolve around:

  1. Smart Clouds – the next trend in cloud computing where flexible customized clouds can address a particular business need depending on requirements
  2. Industrial Cyber Security – cyber threats have the potential to disrupt safety, impact productivity and loss of intellectual property
  3. The Enterprise Ecosystem – the convergence of ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning), PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) and MES (Manufacturing Execution System) will enable considerable optimisation throughout the product lifecycle and is critical for automotive manufacturing

The European automotive industry is witnessing a period of temporary layoffs and austerity measures. It will be Interesting to witness how OEMs will define their strategy over the coming years and achieving an optimised smart manufacturing process is critically important.

Niranjan Thiyagarajan is an Automotive Expert in the field of automotive chassis systems, industrial powertrain systems, as well as electric vehicles, multi-modal journey planning and new mobility trends at Frost & Sullivan. Contact via Email Contact.

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