Learn how smart manufacturing strategies can help you produce high-quality electric vehicles quickly, affordably and with minimal risk.
By John Miles, global business leader for Electric Vehicles, and Paolo Butti, industry manager for Automotive and Tire, Rockwell Automation
You can say one thing about the future of the automotive industry: Everything’s electric.
Electric vehicle sales in the United States last year reached nearly 200,000, a more than 25% jump from 2016. China did even better with 770,000 vehicles sold — a more than 50% increase from the previous year.
We aren’t likely to see a slowdown anytime soon: One in six new cars sold worldwide in 2025 is expected to be electric. And by 2040, it’s estimated that half of all new vehicle sales worldwide will be electric.
If you’re racing to stake a claim in this fast-growing and increasingly crowded market, you probably have one goal: getting your electric vehicles to market as fast as possible. However, the challenges you face and the approach you take to achieve this goal will vary depending on if you’re a young start-up or a mature automaker.
We know this because we’ve worked extensively with both groups of automakers. If there’s one key takeaway based on all our interactions, it’s that technology alone isn’t the answer. You need a comprehensive strategy for producing vehicles quickly, at the highest quality and with minimal risk.
If you’re a start-up, you have the considerable task of deploying production operations. Often, that involves scaling up quickly from a one-person production team with a vision to a full-fledged production facility. But such rapid rollouts can be full of challenges.
We’ve seen start-ups struggle to adopt or consistently enforce automotive-production best practices. And they’ve experienced serious consequences as a result, including production delays, worker injuries and higher production costs.
This is why it’s critical that you have a knowledgeable industry partner early in the planning process.
The right partner help give you in-depth knowledge of automotive-production best practices and process optimization that you need to avoid common pitfalls. They also can help you build out your automotive supply chain. And, a good industry partner can help you deploy Industry 4.0 concepts (smart manufacturing), helping you identify inefficiencies and drive continuous improvements.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re a mature automaker, you’re most likely hurriedly trying to catch up to the demand for electric vehicles.
Yes, you have deep industry experience and an established global supply chain on your side. But that won’t necessarily help you accommodate the major changes that come with electric vehicles, such as new operations in battery cell, battery pack, electric motors and drivetrain, which can disrupt your operations.
Preparing for these new operations takes time, labor and money. These are a challenge when you’re trying to beat your competition to market, be it another mature brand owner or an electric vehicle start-up.
Industry 4.0 concepts and technologies can help you expand or even reimagine your global operations to incorporate the changes required for electric vehicles.
Embrace Industry 4.0
Smart features and downloadable updates are making electric vehicles more like consumer-electronics products. These smarter, more connected vehicles require a smarter, more connected production approach.
Many mature automakers already use connected operations, but often only in limited ways or across only some of their operations.
An Industry 4.0 strategy deploys seamless connectivity and data sharing, as well as industrial IoT technologies, across your entire organization. This can help you improve visibility into vehicle production processes and help workers at every level make better and faster decisions.
For example, we’ve used smart machines to help teams create more efficient process workflows and more quickly identify the cause of stops for faster recoveries. We’ve also used advanced analytics that monitor asset data over time to help companies predict where problems may occur, so their maintenance teams can prevent stops from occurring in the first place.
Smart, Agile Operations
An integrated automation architecture facilitates smart production in a few key ways:
- It helps you access the right information at the right time to make important operational decisions.
- It enables easier integration of equipment into your plant.
- It allows you to more swiftly react to market demands.
So, what is an integrated architecture? It uses control and information systems that share a common network, control platform, data structures and design environment.
A single network can seamlessly connect plant systems to each other and to the rest of your enterprise. A common control platform allows for more efficient installations, operations and maintenance.
Common, standardized data structures make it easy to collect data across the enterprise and transform it into actionable information for better decision-making. A single design environment can reduce the time and cost of designing, developing and delivering automation projects. With this architecture in place, you can take advantage of connected technologies and capabilities that can help you produce smarter and faster.
Three solutions to consider making part of your electric-vehicle operations include:
1. Scalable manufacturing execution system (MES): Individual MES applications can help you understand and manage production, without investing in a full MES software package.
The applications address specific challenges, such as quality, machine performance, or genealogy and track and trace. You can start at the machine or work-area level with a single application and minimal infrastructure requirements. You can add other applications or scale up to an integrated-MES solution as you grow production and realize return on investment (ROI).
2. Scalable Infrastructure: These offerings can help converge your networks, connect your plant and business systems and give your workers access to information to make better decisions. Scalable infrastructure offerings can be especially valuable when your operations are starting small or if you have time, talent or budgetary constraints.
Infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS), for example, can reduce the burden of designing, deploying and maintaining a network infrastructure. It also can shift your network’s costs from a capital expense to an operating expense. IaaS combines pre-engineered network solutions, on-site configuration and 24/7 remote monitoring into a single contract. It uses best-in-class technologies and architectures and can help optimize the performance, efficiency and uptime of your network architecture.
3. Independent Cart Technology: Systems built with this technology will be a game changer in electric-vehicle production. They offer the potential of higher line speeds and reduced downtime, which can help you get to market faster.
Independent cart technology allows a brand owner to move small components, or even full car bodies, around a plant faster and more precisely than conventional mechanical solutions. This can help you speed up production in a traditional body shop or in areas such as battery cell and pack production, where high-speed conveyance has proven to be a challenge.
You can change the functions of systems using independent cart technology with the push of a button to achieve fast changeovers. These systems also have fewer moving parts, which can reduce maintenance needs and improving uptime.
Start with a Strategy
The electric vehicle market is only going to get hotter as more automakers try to carve out a piece of it. The right expertise, partners and technologies are essential to your success. However, it’s more important to have a well-thought-out strategy that addresses the unique challenges of electric-vehicle production and defines how Industry 4.0 concepts will help you solve them.
Learn about Rockwell Automation manufacturing automation and controls for the automotive industry.
The Journal From Rockwell Automation and Our PartnerNetwork™ is published by Putman Media, Inc.