Digitalisation and the Future

The Automotive industry is often seen as a “bell weather” industry in terms of both the performance of the economy and technology innovation. Understanding how it is realising the potential of Industry 4.0 technologies offers valuable insights for us all.

According to a report commissioned by SMMT and produced by KPMG, by fully embracing digitalisation, the automotive sector stands to gain £6.9bn every year by 2035. The cumulative total benefit to the economy could be £74bn by 2035.

Chief Executive of the SMMT, Mike Hawes, has emphasised the dramatic changes affecting the sector: “Technology is creating a host of opportunities which allow for new innovations and the development of cleaner, more efficient and safer vehicles. The rapid development of the digital economy is changing consumer expectations and old business models are being adapted, changed and even scrapped as a result. And political change is creating new challenges for the automotive sector as the UK prepares for its withdrawal from the European Union.

In the face of all this change, the primary objective of the automotive sector stays the same – to remain globally competitive.”

Technology Leaders in Automotive

The automotive sector is often characterised as being highly automated – images of robotic machinery on production lines come freely to mind. Compared to many industries, it is true the automotive sector is significantly automated.

However, this isn’t true across the board, on every process, or across every aspect of the supply chain. Nor does it necessarily mean the automotive industry is a particularly early adopter of new technologies. The values involved in even the smallest delay to a production line mean automotive production can be a very risk-averse industry.

The lifetime of a line

The average lifetime of a production line in the automotive sector is eight years. This is the typical point at which a vehicle model will be retired and replaced with a new model and a requisite new line commissioned.

Since most lines are of a relatively new build – usually no more than eight years old – most of the lines are already “smart” and feature a high degree of automation.
Nevertheless, Phil Hadfield, the UK Sales Manager for Rockwell Automation’s Utilities and Transport Team, argues there remain significant opportunities for the Automotive sector to leverage Industry 4.0 technologies to greater effect.

“Industry 4.0 technologies are all about harnessing information and presenting it to the right hands in the right form,” Hadfield explains, “in many respects this is already on the boil in the automotive sector. But while it might be being captured, some organisations are not doing much with it – so there are still opportunities to use data more effectively to inform better real-time decisions.”

Technology opportunities for the sector

Alongside this high-level information piece, Hadfield says there are two other key elements of Industry 4.0 where he sees huge potential for the sector.

“At the moment, the hot topic is digital twins. In the automotive sector, businesses are already investing in digital twin technology; we have a number of active digital twin projects underway with automotive manufacturers,” Hadfield tells Industry 4.0 magazine. “Looking further forward, I think augmented reality will offer huge potential. Although we are engineering solutions with MS HoloLens, for example, it’s not being deployed widely on the shopfloor yet. I expect this is something that will grow massively moving forward.”

The key advantage that augmented reality offers is around the ease of delivering information, according to Hadfield. While MES and MIS systems are long-established in the sector, the current work to improve real-time information could be even more valuable if paired with this type of solution.

“The pay-off is the reduction of localised, fixed windows on the process, such as the existing shopfloor HMIs. It’s a natural progression to, instead of having an iPad, have augmented reality glasses. And delivering real-time process, predictive maintenance and equipment data direct to operators’ smart glasses will empower users to access relevant information much more easily.”

Empowering shopfloor workers to make better decisions and to plan and execute maintenance more effectively is extremely valuable in an industry where even just a short delay to a line can have massive cost implications.


Enhanced digital Andon production-issue reporting solution delivers actionable data for better decision making at Toyota Motor Manufacturing (UK) Ltd.
TMUK has two manufacturing plants in the UK employing over 3,200 people.

Representing a total investment in excess of £2.2 billion, the vehicle manufacturing plant is located at Burnaston in Derbyshire and the engine manufacturing plant at Deeside in North Wales. The first car, a Carina E, drove off the Burnaston production line in 1992.

The Burnaston plant is the sole manufacturer of the Avensis model and the sole European manufacturer of the Auris and Auris Hybrid. The plant comprises a single assembly shop – which produces both models – and within this facility a number of information technology solutions are deployed to collate and deliver a wide variety of production management data.

These IT solutions are used as the communication framework for a number of production programmes and philosophies, which underpin Toyota’s impressive worldwide manufacturing efficiency reputation. One such programme is the company’s Andon solution, which allows line operators to call for management help or temporarily stop the production line if they spot something that they perceive could have a detrimental effect on vehicle quality. Originating from the word for a paper lantern, Andon – which in English translates to ‘sign’ or ‘signal’ – is a term that refers to an illuminated signal which notifies others of a problem within the quality-control or production streams. It is a means of highlighting a problem as it occurs in order to immediately countermeasure the issue and prevent re-occurrence.
It was the intention of TMUK to refresh its current Andon systems through a phased programme of hardware and application replacement and modernisation.
For this upgrade project, Toyota appraised a number of technologies from different vendors and approached Rockwell Automation to develop the new solution based on more up-to-date and open technologies.

The existing Line Andon System comprised a number of technologies from multiple vendors and included a reporting system that was also made up of a mixture of systems and software suites.

The new solution was to be made up of three core elements: a Line Andon system; a Real Time Andon reporting system; and hourly reporting and shop display boards.
The new Line Andon System is delivered by a number of stations (specific to each line) running FactoryTalk® View Station Site Edition (SE) on six physical PCs, but using video extender cables to connect to multiple monitors mounted above the line in full view of the operators and their supervisors. This system provides pull or line-stop indication to production line team leaders, giving them the ability to respond to team members’ concerns and avoid extended line stops. The new system gathers data from the line-control panels (LCP) for immediate reflection on local display screens as well as ensuring that data extracted from the LCPs is also made available for extraction, for use by the Real Time Andon and other systems.

The Real Time Andon System uses virtual servers for FactoryTalk Historian Site edition (SE) running in conjunction with RSLinx®, FactoryTalk® VantagePoint® and Microsoft SQL servers. Relevant information from these servers can then be displayed on various client PCs as web reports and on the large shop display boards that are located at strategic points around the assembly shop.

TMUK now has a Digital Andon System that delivers exactly what it needs in terms of accurate, pertinent real-time operational information to both the line-side operators and their supervisors; speeding up the time taken to recover from a stop and to identify the root cause.

In addition, the Historian functionality gives them the ability to predict where problems may occur and take preventative action.

“The Rockwell Automation engineers are easy to work with,” says Alastair Moore, Section Manager Assembly Engineering at TMUK, “and the mutual respect means that both sides are willing to listen to each other… We are looking to expand the system into other areas and factories and then potentially into other countries such as France, with any improvements and lessons learnt from these projects being rolled back to us.”

Digital Twins

It isn’t only predictive maintenance that can power incremental improvements. Rockwell Automation is already working with customers to create and leverage digital twins of existing production lines to identify opportunities to improve the process.

“In this industry, a half-second improvement to the Takt time can represent a revenue increase into the millions of pounds per year,” Hadfield says, “But in complex environments such as a car assembly line, it can be hard to trace the bottlenecks. Using a digital twin for analysis gives you an opportunity to stand back and identify the root cause of the problem. Very often the source is a different cell to the one where the effect is being felt.”

A new strategic partnership

The potential of augmented reality technologies is one reason for Rockwell Automation’s recent investment in and strategic partnership with software company PTC. PTC’s high-level Thingworx digital solution and Vuforia augmented reality solutions will complement Rockwell Automation’s existing software and hardware portfolio to provide one of the most comprehensive Industry 4.0 solutions for the automotive sector.

In addition to creating digital twins on “brownfield” sites, the company is also working on digital twins for “greenfield” sites. A digital twin can be created right at the inception of a new line, before the physical line is built. Engineers can then identify any flow issues or other potential problems or bottlenecks in the digital environment.

“We can even digitally commission the line,” says Hadfield, “so much of the equipment has already been commissioned in the digital environment. This gives us an opportunity to iron out issues upfront and very quickly get the new line up and running. Compressing the time it takes to develop the line delivers huge cost savings. Then, once it moves into production, the digital twin shadows the real line, so we can continue to explore possibilities for improvement.”

Hadfield acknowledges that some of the major opportunities from Industry 4.0 technologies for the automotive sector will be felt by the consumer – in terms of vehicle design and in-car technologies. The most dramatic change affecting the sector is the move to electric vehicles.

Producing the new vehicles will be require huge changes to the existing manufacturing infrastructure and lines will look very different. The prospect of using digital twins to optimise the development of these new lines could deliver massive competitive advantage for forward-thinking manufacturers.

Developing the customer experience

Hadfield says, at the same time, the long-term future of Industry 4.0 technologies in the automotive sector offers a massive opportunity to improve on the customer experience.

Harnessing plant-side information to offer customers the opportunity to track their vehicle through the plant almost moves us back to the experience Rolls Royce customers would have enjoyed a hundred years ago. As well as being able to personalise their vehicle, consumers could see exactly who is working on it.

Already, after the vehicle moves off the line, new connectivity pulls information from vehicles to aid monitoring, maintenance and lifecycle management, prompting users to upgrade services or head to the dealership for a service. The move towards completely autonomous vehicles will bring even greater cultural change, predicts Hadfield.

“We’ve reached the point where technology is no longer the limiting factor,” he says. “The only limiting factor is our imaginations.”

The Future of Automotive Manufacturing

Automation company COPA-DATA has a strong record in the automotive sector, counting Audi, BMW, Hyundai Rotem, Mini and Volkswagen amongst its customers.


COPA-DATA points out that as well as facing some of its biggest-ever challenges through the advent of autonomous driving, electric vehicles, and car sharing, digitalisation is revolutionising automotive production at a breath-taking rate. In addition, it says, new players are entering the market and putting pressure on the major manufacturers with disruptive ideas and innovations.

However, while COPA-DATA recognises that Industry 4.0 and the transition that is taking place in the automotive industry does bring challenges it argues, at the same time, manufacturers will gain huge opportunities.

In a recent conversation with futurologist Lars Thomsen, COPA-DATA explored what Industry 4.0 will mean for the future of the automotive sector, asking the question: how can automotive companies navigate the path to Industry 4.0?

Lars Thomsen is one of the world’s leading futurologists and is one of the most influential experts on the future of energy, mobility, and smart networks. He is the founder and chief futurist of the future matters think-tank. Over the years, more than 800 companies have placed their trust in his expertise and nose for a trend.
Thomsen began explaining why the Digital 2016 Monitoring Report from the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology found only an “average level of digitalisation in companies”.

“The automotive industry has hitherto been a very protected industry. The goal of automotive manufacturers was to produce their next models more economically, more efficiently and faster,” Thomsen said. “All of a sudden, newcomers from the consumer electronics and IT sectors have arrived on the scene and are competing with the industry. These companies have a much higher rate of innovation and a different risk culture.”

Thomsen made the point that “now, for the first time, the automobile industry is really being challenged – not from within, but from the outside. And due to digitalization, cars are no longer as autonomous. In the future, the car will be part of a networked system like a city, an energy system, or a communications structure. This increases the pressure to innovate and requires a digitalisation strategy.”
Thomsen stressed that digitalisation starts with the management and innovation culture.

“If there is no competitive pressure from outside and the environment is known very precisely, there is not the positive kind of paranoia perhaps needed to operate in highly aggressive markets,” he said.

Now the industry finds itself grappling with three simultaneous mega-trends:

• What will be under the hood tomorrow? i.e. combustion engines versus electrical motors.
• Will we have to drive our own cars in future or will our cars drive themselves?
• Does mobility for the individual in the future mean ownership of a vehicle or just access to one?
“When we realise that these three mega-trends will completely change the industry over the next decade, we will see the enormous pressure under which every decision in the production and development of automobiles will have to be made in the future,” Thomsen said.
“The speed at which the changes are coming is rapid – much faster than most people think. Artificial intelligence, Big Data, and pattern recognition are developing much faster than the Internet. If we consider how fast development of the Internet was, and then if we raise that to the power of three, we can get some idea of the rapid pace at which changes are taking place in the development of artificial intelligence.”




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