Faster, More Efficient, More Sustainable – The Production Plant of the Future

By Dr Peter F. Tropschuh (Audi AG), Audi AG
04:41 PM, July 13, 2016

Digital integration will play a central role in the modern production plant over the next few years: The “factory of the future” – also known as Industry 4.0 or the Smart Factory – not only increases the ability of machines to control processes faster and more efficiently; it also results in greater integration of machinery and humans.

Following on from mechanization, electrification, and automation, the Smart Factory denotes what now represents the fourth industrial revolution that industry will be facing over the coming years. The goal of the Smart Factory is to increase productivity and flexibility while at the same time realizing ecological benefits by reducing the level of resources consumed.

The driving force behind this development is the steady inroads made by worldwide integration. Today’s internet continues to evolve into an “Internet of Things,” over which not only people, but also machinery (= things) can exchange information. The real and virtual worlds are thus increasingly converging. The
Smart Factory symbolizes this process.

Because all workers, machinery, and resources are interconnected non-centrally there, they are able to communicate with each other in real time. That is how the factory is able to assist the workers. Various elements and technologies of the Smart Factory are already in use at Audi. The much-lauded revolution is
therefore more a case of an evolution for Audi production.

Future scenario: Islands of expertise instead of assembly line

Intelligent systems, innovative technologies, efficient structures: time to rethink the topic from the ground up. Small groups of forward thinkers in Ingolstadt gather ideas for the Smart Factory beyond  2030. The creative teams work on solutions, free from the current processes in production. Instead of today’s practice of high-volume production at a small number of plants, in the future production facilities could be built wherever the demand is high – in other words, close to the customer. Every production unit would therefore need to be able to build every model according to the same principles and using the same flexible tools – a complete rethink of the working approach in automotive manufacturing. Here, too, the future is connected, integrated, and communicative.

The role of the workers

For all the focus on the technology, people will not disappear from the production plant of the future. Quite the opposite: The large number of production variants, the high degree of customization, and the high-quality standards can only be realized with suitably wellqualified workers. But wherever possible, they are supported by assisting robots. Ergonomics and reduced workloads are the overriding priorities; the workers will increasingly take on planning and controlling roles, because in 2035 skilled workers will be in demand and coveted. Identifying problems and indicating them to the workers – the rectification process, for example – will also proceed much faster thanks to integrated diagnostics systems.

Clearly, however, the standards involved in working in the production plant of the future will rise. The workers are therefore supported by elaborate information systems because the extreme variations in products has resulted in a very large scope of tasks. At the interfaces between electronic and mechanical systems, for
example, software experts ensure that sensors are set and functioning optimally. Network architects ensure that machines and workers can communicate. So the high levels of technology and integration already require one thing above all: the adequate qualification and advancement of the workers.

New robots facilitate work

In the production plant of the future, robots can support the workers in many different ways. For example, machines can supply them with important information as needed, or step in to perform non-value-adding activities. The division of labor runs along the same principles as in the operating room: prepare – pass on – operate.

For the past two years, smaller robots operating according to this principle have been in action on the Audi assembly line without any safety fence. The work that these new “colleagues” do is often relatively simple, but they relieve the workers of the need to do physically strenuous tasks. Audi’s goal is to make every workstation as ergonomic as possible. Assembly Technology Development, for example, is working on increasingly transferring burdensome tasks from workers to robots. This aspect is especially relevant in production, because that is where most physical effort is required, and demographic change is forcing through fresh solutions.
Beyond the confines of the plant – globally integrated

Digitalization is making inroads not just within a production location, but across the entire global production chain. The Audi Group currently builds vehicles at 17 locations in 13 countries. The new plant in Mexico was added in 2016. More than 85,000 employees throughout the Group work simultaneously on creating high-quality products all over the world. To do this, a huge amount of data needs to be shared between the plants because they are all interconnected non-centrally. Networking this working data intelligently and processing it in real time are therefore major priorities. The key thing is to send and evaluate enormous data flows quickly and at high speed. Data security is obviously hugely important for this “big data”: As early as
the research phase, the company uses recognized and tested embedded security mechanisms and standards. To enable smooth communication, international standards must also be clarified.

Ideas from our own ranks

Preparing the way to the Smart Factory of the future is not merely the task of designated experts in creative teams. Ever since 1969, each individual employee at Audi has had the opportunity to put forward their own ideas; in 1994 this suggestions scheme gave birth to the Audi Ideas Program. The large number of innovative suggestions has resulted in both minor and far-reaching process improvements, all of which save costs. Since the program was introduced, AUDI AG has realized savings in the order of € 780 million. Audi examines the benefits and feasibility of every idea submitted with a view to raising efficiency or improving the working environment. It is quite common for them even to result in successful patents, such as the helicalthread mold.

About the Authors
Tropschuh, Peter F.

Dr. Peter F. Tropschuh is Head of Corporate Responsibility of Audi AG.

Audi AG

The Audi Group, comprising the two brands Audi and Lamborghini, has for many years been one of the world’s leading carmakers in the premium and supercar segment. Through the acquisition of DUCATI MOTOR HOLDING S.P.A., Bologna (Italy), and its subsidiaries, the Audi Group has moreover since July 2012 been able to offer its customers motorcycles built by one of the most successful manufacturers in that segment.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect CSR Manager's editorial policy.
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