Does the future of automotive manufacturing lie in automation?

During the formative years of the automotive industry there was a high demand for vehicles. This high demand simply could not be met with the traditional, low-volume manufacturing techniques that were prevalent in the early 1900s. The demand resulted in Henry Ford developing the assembly line. This was one of the first major steps in optimising the automotive industry and it kick-started the automotive revolution from a few thousand cars per year to over 70 million per year in 2018. Vehicle manufacturers have perfected the art of meeting demand, however new drivers are emerging such as cost, energy efficiency, customisability and speed. The next major leap in the automotive industry will be fully autonomous manufacturing.

Robots have been used in the automotive industry from the 1960s when General Motors installed the Unimate robot, the world’s first industrial robot used by a major manufacturer. However, robotic assistance on the assembly line is not necessarily all there is to automation;  indeed the key premise of Industry 4.0 is the combination of physical and digital systems to improve manufacturing efficiency.

Automation in the automotive manufacturing industry

A standard car is extremely complex in terms of the number of parts required to create a complete product. This complexity and the sheer volume of vehicles being pushed into the market make the automotive industry one of the most logical places for the benefits of automation to be realised. Saving a few seconds on an assembly line can translate into tangible financial benefits over a relatively short time. 

Benefits of automation in the automotive manufacturing industry

Automation brings many benefits to the automotive industry, some of which are listed below:

  • Cost Reduction – Reduced spending is one of the most obvious benefits of automation. A machine can work 24/7 without needing to rest. It also significantly reduces labour costs. Historically, countries with low labour rates dominated the mass manufacturing industries as their bottom line was simply too hard to beat by more regulated labour markets in the West. Automation will level the playing field once more, allowing the traditional automotive powerhouses in the UK to enter the market.
  • Machine Vision – It is a simple fact that humans make mistakes. This is not acceptable in an industry where an unsafe product can lead to loss of life. One of the key methods of ensuring that a safe and high-quality product leaves the manufacturing plant in as close to perfect condition as possible is a rigorous inspection process. Experienced human technicians can reliably spot defects and faults during an inspection, however there is still a failure rate due to the fallibility of humans. Machine vision can spot faults and issues more often and at a higher rate than any human can. Not only this but faults can be recorded and reported as soon as they are detected, allowing plant managers to trace and rectify the issue in real time.
  • Production – As mentioned previously, automation can significantly increase production rates by working both faster and longer than human workers can. However the replacement of humans on the production line is not a foregone conclusion, in fact the future of automation rests in cooperation between robotics and humans. Collaborative robots or ‘Cobots’ allow for humans to work safely alongside robots to improve the productivity of both human and robot, making the system greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Self Monitoring – IoT technology embedded in manufacturing machines can monitor the state of the machinery and determine when a failure or breakdown is imminent. This enables work to be redirected to other machines well in advance of any breakdown thus eliminating downtime and its related costs.
  • Data Management – Machine learning is the current buzzword in the world of automation, however machine learning algorithms consume data. This data can only come from real-world production monitoring that is collected all across the factory using embedded sensors. This wealth of data can then be used to optimise manufacturing activities.
  • Customisation – The consumer market is becoming more and more accustomed to customisable products. The type of production flexibility required to provide even the simplest form of user-defined products requires a high level of automation.
  • Consistency – Robotics are renowned for their precision and repeatability. Human workers can achieve similar levels, however the time required is significantly longer than that achievable with a machine. Higher consistency results in less wastage and improved productivity. 
  • Production Flexibility – One of the key advantages of an Industry 4.0 ecosystem is the ability to seamlessly share production, not only in the same factory, but also across multiple facilities. This level of flexibility is impossible without hardware and software automation.

In conclusion 

The future is undoubtedly automated and the automotive industry is at the forefront of this change. Coupled with smart factories running on the principles of Industry 4.0, the automotive manufacturing landscape is set to change dramatically.