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3 Keys to Future-Proofing Automotive Production

Connected, flexible and scalable powertrain or drivetrain operations can help you keep up with demand and adapt to inevitable technology changes.

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By Bill Sarver, senior consultant, global automotive industry, Rockwell Automation

What would a world without internal combustion engines look like? While this isn’t the current reality, changes in legislation and consumer habits are driving this global shift in a major way.

If you’re an electric vehicle start-up, you’re already looking past gas-powered engines and working to build the all-electric fleets of the future. Or, if you’re a mature automaker, your journey to building all-electric vehicles is probably a long road that first involves shifting your current operations to incorporate hybrids.

Powertrain manufacturing systems are sophisticated. So, whether you’re building electric drivetrains or hybrid powertrains, you need the same thing: flexible and scalable production operations. Not only do they help adjust production to keep up with the demand for electric or hybrid vehicles, but they also help confirm you’re equipped for future technology advancements.

To create scalable and flexible powertrain or drivetrain operations, incorporate these three elements:

1. Connected Plant

Vehicles are changing, and production must change with them. That’s why progressive automakers are unifying their manufacturing and IT operations to create more connected plants.

Connected, information-enabled plants launch faster and perform better. It allows you to measure and analyze almost any aspect of production to help operators make informed decisions. Processes can be simulated to improve training and validate line changes before they’re made. You can blend the physical and digital aspects of your operations to help staff work more efficiently and see production in new ways.

Also, connected plants can do more than improve production — they can transform it. By connecting everyone from the consumer to your suppliers to your plant workers, you can deliver personalized cars that are as unique as the people who drive them.

Realizing these capabilities calls for connected plants to include a robust network foundation designed for reliability, scalability and security. Connecting workers and verifying they can access important data in real time requires plants to incorporate Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technologies.

For help with building connected operations, take advantage of freely available resources such as the Converged Plantwide Ethernet (CPwE) design guides from Cisco® and Rockwell Automation. Then, work closely with a system integrator that can help guide your unique path to a connected plant.

It’s essential to use software that can grow quickly with your operations.

2. Scalable, Digital Solutions

Imagine software that can turn raw production data into useful information for operators. Not only would this help save time and money but is a necessity in current automotive operations.

However, too often, automakers are hesitant to adopt more modern, high-value software and digital solutions. As a result, they continue to use home-grown solutions that can’t achieve operational needs or internal customer expectations. They’re difficult to integrate with other systems and challenging to scale as operations either grow or evolve.

That’s why it’s essential to use software that can grow quickly with your operations.

Scalable analytics software, for example, can help you become more efficient while dealing with the constant changes in powertrain and drivetrain technologies. The software also helps protect the quality of electric or hybrid vehicles by tracking critical points in the production process — from raw material usage to battery assembly to finished-good performance.

Analytics software also can use new, disruptive technologies to change how you monitor and manage production. Being able to identify and solve these problems before they happen is one of the major benefits of this software. It can use machine learning to predict production outcomes, such as machine failures or quality issues.

Analytics software also can use augmented reality (AR) to change how plant workers do their jobs. An operator, for example, could use an AR headset or tablet to identify bad batteries that get digitally flagged in the AR environment so the operator could remove those batteries from production.

Scalable manufacturing execution system (MES) software is equally critical. It can automate data collection and drive decision-making to help manage complexity, especially as your services grow or evolve.

An MES can manage production from order initiation to final assembly to help reduce the work in process. It can also make sure that materials are available for planned production sequences to keep lines moving, and can use enforceable instructions to help make sure workers build vehicles to spec.

An MES also allows you to create a digital genealogy for every vehicle that can be tracked and traced through both your plant and the supply chain. No matter what stage production is in, this system can help you identify, investigate and resolve potential vehicle quality and safety issues.

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Electric Vehicle Manufacturing: Incorporating Security into the Design Process for Improved Operational Efficiency

Inefficient manufacturing equipment and processes impact safety and security, which have subsequent negative effects on brand health, production capacity and downtime.

In this webinar, learn how to improve the operational efficiency of your automotive manufacturing process without compromising security or other related areas of performance. In addition, learn how to leverage existing control and security architectures to optimize production.

3. Flexible Production Technologies

Hybrid and electric-vehicle sales are steadily growing and expected to account for 30% of vehicle sales by 2025, according a 2018 report by J.P. Morgan. That’s why you need production technologies that can help keep up with demand.

If you’re an electric-vehicle start-up, you need drivetrain operations that can transition from low-volume to high-volume production based on demand. For example, an assembly cell system concept allows you to build flexible, highly standardized assembly lines using machines that can run semi-automated for current needs, then transition to fully automated later when production ramps up.

If you’re a mature automaker, you might need to create more flexible and modular powertrain production operations that can support both traditional and hybrid vehicles. Pre-engineered integrated automation solutions can help create fast and flexible powertrain operations.

An automation-based design and configuration solution such as the Rockwell Automation Production Performance Builder (PPB), helps enable more flexible manufacturing through faster line reconfiguration. Normally, this process would take a large amount of time, but by applying this new solution, powertrain lines can be rebalanced and reconfigured within a day.

For powertrain assembly plants, a configurable line can help achieve optimal line balance even as you deal with changing technologies, more production models and fluctuating capacity. This new addition translates to lower overall operational costs and can help reduce production bottlenecks. Also, for powertrain equipment suppliers, a design and configuration tool helps achieve design repeatability and appropriate system sizing from the outset.

Future-Proofed Production

Hybrid and all-electric vehicles will someday constitute most cars on our roadways. However, we can’t predict how consumer preferences will evolve or how technologies like batteries and fuel cells will change before we reach that day.

With a connected plant strategy, scalable software and flexible technologies in hand, you can build flexible and scalable powertrain or drivetrain production operations that can adjust to future technology and demand changes. This will help make the road to an all-electric future a smooth one.

Learn more about how Rockwell Automation can help improve your electric vehicle production.




The Journal From Rockwell Automation and Our PartnerNetwork™ is published by Putman Media, Inc.

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