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The digital drive in automotive manufacturing


The digital revolution of the automotive industry is already underway. As a result of digitalisation, vehicle manufacturers and suppliers will benefit from increased productivity, greater flexibility, and shorter times to market. Customers will also benefit from personalised, higher-quality vehicles. CTS highlights five digital trends within automotive manufacturing

The automotive sector has always been a leading light when it comes to innovation. That spirit of innovation has seen them in good stead as they grapple with the opportunities offered by the new wave of technologies that represent the digital transformation that is sweeping through industry.

Automotive companies understand that they need to transform to enable them to meet consumer demands. From the manufacturing floor to the vehicle showroom the sector is changing

Building a digital core

Setting up a digital core has provided automotive manufacturers with a robust foundation for the future. Through modern ERP tools such as SAP S/4HANA, organisations can build on top of this platform to achieve higher levels of digital transformation using AI, ML, analytics and blockchain. “Some Scandinavian and German automotive OEMs are already becoming considerably advanced in building a digital core to transition to end to end processes, higher automation and instant visibility into operations,” Rafi Billurcu, partner – head of ERP and platforms Europe and head of UK manufacturing, Infosys Consulting, says. “This foundation will serve them in implementing and scaling some of these digital technologies in the future, enabling them to continue to evolve and adapt to new challenges.

“Digital technologies have also been implemented by manufacturers on a small scale at first in areas where they can achieve relatively quick wins. For example, we are seeing German automotive OEMs begin using augmented reality and virtual reality in numerous use cases related to training and planning of workstations at the assembly line.

Digital transformation is also creating higher speed to value as automotive manufacturers increasingly look to partner with niche technology firms to get instant access to their technology expertise and platforms. This is particularly the case as automotive OEMs look to develop more sustainable car models. In Scandinavia, for example, we’re seeing greater investment in blockchain technology firms to boost the traceability of cobalt used in the batteries of electric cars.”

Welcome to the robots

Covid-19 has highlighted the need for the automotive manufacturing process to adapt and be less reliant on humans, especially those that are in direct contact with the assembly line. The process needs to be more agile, resilient, and flexible – the pandemic has shown there is a calling for a more robotics-led approach, which would then allow companies, in the process, to realign and retrain employees into supervisory roles. Industry 4.0, perhaps more than anything else, is centred on making all aspects within automotive manufacturing – human and machine – perform smarter.

Sohini Bianka Roy, product manager, Canonical – the company behind Ubuntu, has a vision of a future robot workforce supported by human supervisors. “A largely roboticised assembly line would also change employees’ roles,” he says. “Human would move into supervisory or freshly created roles, a lot of which can be done remotely and can find new innovations within automotive manufacturing. This will also allow the industry to become more agile and able to transition quickly, moving in new directions when uncertainty arises and without the need for too many boots on ground.

“Fewer boots mean more robots, and much like society, robots can benefit from the output of a collective. Known as swarm robotics, this can keep the strengths of the assembly line alive, ensuring efficiency with a multi-skilled workforce across man and machine.

“As with any major shift in traditional operations, it will not happen overnight. As well as putting in the actual structures into place – both the robotics hardware and software – businesses also need to introduce education and understanding. Trust comes from familiarity and only by interacting with technology in places where it previously did not exist will the industry see more widespread adoption. Industry 4.0 is simply the next logical step.”

Getting smarter with supply chains

The automotive industry operates within a highly regulated, competitive, and changing environment. Supply chains are large, and often complicated with parts and components manufactured in different sites across the globe and travelling to a single site for assembly. Therefore, technologies that can help automotive manufacturers to manage their multiple tiers of suppliers and navigate market complexities can make a real difference.

“Automotive supply chains will often consist of multiple tiers of suppliers all of which will be reliant on one another meeting deadlines and ensuring high quality output,” Martin Mohr, GM EMEA, Icertis, explains. “Complex supply chains can by nature be unamenable to change, and with disruptive trends having a huge influence across areas from build to delivery, technology that improves agility and visibility is key to survival.”

Covid-19 has accelerated these challenges. Logistics difficulties because of lockdowns and reduced customer demand has meant many are having to rethink their supply chains to reduce operational risk and exposure. “Contract intelligence platforms that turn contracts into data driven assets are enabling organisations including Porsche and Daimler to better manage and understand their supply chain,” Mohr continues. “According to Gartner, digital contract lifecycle management is moving from a nice have to a must have technology, meaning investment in this space has become even more integral in recent months, with a significant uptake expected across all types of industries in the future.”

Daimler is a prime example. Managing over 500,000 suppliers across the globe, the company recognised that it needed to improve its agility to compete in today’s rapidly changing business environment. The systems the company used to manage its sourcing processes were decades old and fragmented across multiple platforms.

“The Icertis Contract Intelligence (ICI) platform was operational within four months and is fully integrated with Daimler’s IT landscape, meaning relationships with suppliers can be tracked across the entire business, improving compliance and enabling transparent risk management,” Mohr says. “By using the technology to understand agreements throughout a supply chain, Daimler has been able to improve supplier relationships and faster identify compliance issues.

“For employees in the procurement division, ICI made the process of publishing RFPs and selecting suppliers much simpler, and buyers can use past performance and price to cherry pick the best deals. Meanwhile, the legal department is using ICI to better track deviations and reduce contract lead times from six weeks to one, further optimising relationships.”

Daimler is now managing its entire roster of suppliers on the platform at 50 per cent of the costs of the previous system and is seeing a range of benefits by being able to gain full access to supplier data and seamlessly integrate with third-party systems – key for an automotive company working in a complex supply chain environment.

The growth of digital sales

It goes without saying that COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the automotive industry in recent months. With the ability to carry out face-to-face sales reduced, there has been great pressure for manufacturers to meet customer demands through digital selling on multiple channels. And this trend looks set to be a long-term shift, with research from McKinsey and Company suggesting that less than a third of younger consumers prefer to conduct business in person.

Richard Blatcher, director of business intelligence at PROS explains that the company’s research supports this theory, indicating that businesses buying from manufacturers increasingly favour digital, with 42 per cent preferring to self-serve, as opposed to 30 per cent pre-pandemic. “This is a clear call to action for the automotive industry to invest in technologies that allow them to be adaptable to changing buying behaviours and demands.

“The digital transformation of the end-to-end sales process, from product design, delivery, personalisation and pricing, all the way through to enabling the customer to more easily gain long term value and increase loyalty, will have the greatest impact on manufacturer’s bottom line. With the amount of IIoT on the factory floor, manufacturers have ample opportunity to deploy artificial intelligence (AI) to their advantage – but they need to be profitable to do it.

“The first port of call for the automotive industry should be to use AI to improve its sales process and customer experience with automated, dynamic pricing, transparent inventory and fast and tailored order fulfilment. Manufacturers that invest in a digital platform to process customer, market and demand data quickly, to adjust to any new reality, are in the best position to offer a personalised yet profitable customer experience. Having the capability to sell to customers through multiple channels empowers manufacturing businesses to adapt rapidly to changing scenarios, while protecting brand reputation, customer loyalty, and maintaining healthy and profitable sales.”

Adding intelligence with integrated electronics

As the mobility industry continues to move forward, so too does the intelligence of vehicles because of ever more advanced components. Hybrid and fully electric alternatives to the internal combustion engine (ICE) are continuing to gain market share, and sensor technology is playing an increasingly pivotal role – from supply chain track and trace capabilities to the safety, reliability and functionality of the vehicles of the future.

“Integrated electronics is a broad term, but from a Datwyler perspective there are many areas where this technology can be deployed as part of a smart sealing solution in order to add value to manufacturers, brands and end users alike,” Dr Norbert Haberland, head of business development and cooperation advanced technologies at Datwyler, says. “For example, if we take an RFID chip that has been embedded into a seal – or a sensor, printed directly onto the surface of the product – a wide variety of information can be captured and stored that can deliver key information along the supply chain.

“The authenticity of a part can be checked with ease, for example, while part numbers and production dates can help to provide superior traceability as supply chains become ever more digitalized. Products that may be visually similar by geometry or design, such as membranes, can also be checked to ensure the correct products are used when parts are assembled.”

Advances in smart sealing solutions also extend beyond the supply chain. Sensor active layers within elastomer components or on their surface can detect force, touch or even leakage – a highly desirable capability within battery packs, where any form of leakage can lead to reduced functionality or even overheating – and in some instances can detect the presence of media on the surface of the seal, leading to higher levels of capability in terms of predictive maintenance.

“Sensors within certain seals will be able to detect whether parts are wearing or are close to failure, ensuring their replacement can be scheduled before such an event leads to unscheduled downtime of the vehicle or even potential safety issues,” Haberland adds. “The ability to monitor the status of components, not just for the driver of the vehicle, but also for the entire system, allows service or maintenance to be scheduled when it is actually required, rather than at intervals determined by best guesswork.”

Smart sealing solutions can also have a positive impact where environmental sustainability is concerned. For example, electronic components such as chips and sensors can detect parameters such as temperature and pressure when integrated into sealing solutions. “If we take the battery pack of an electronic vehicle as an example, monitoring thermal conditions is a critical element, as optimal functionality is only achieved within a specific temperature window,” Haberland says.

“Here, the integrated electronics help the vehicle to optimize energy consumption and also to increase the effective lifespan of the battery itself. “Looking ahead, in the future vehicles will contain an increasing and considerable amount of electronic and sensor features that will serve to ease and increase the safety and comfort of drivers, passengers and the overall traffic environment.”

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