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Will this be the new normal? Automotive manufacturing is being redefined by digital native EV disruptors, as Juliet Elliot explains
Automotive manufacturing as we know it is on the precipice of its biggest shake-up since Henry Ford’s assembly lines – and, as an industry, we are not adapting fast enough. That is the conclusion of an industry research paper commissioned by Hexagon’s Manufacturing Intelligence division, entitled The electric vehicle pivot: Why smart manufacturing, not scale, may be the key to success.
This research, conducted by Wards Intelligence, found that the introduction of new EV players capitalising on lower barriers to entry threaten to shift the balance of power away from traditional automakers through new approaches and the better use of data.
These major disruptive forces are entering this space from a variety of unexpected areas, with consumer electronics giants such as Apple, Sony and Foxconn throwing their hat into the ring of EV development. Then, of course, there are the digital-native stars of the EV industry such as Tesla and the UK’s EV ‘unicorn’ start-up, Arrival, both of which are delivering innovative products – underpinned by a more fundamental rethink of development and manufacturing, or so-called smart manufacturing.
Unlocking the advances that smart manufacturing approaches can bring to automotive new product introduction is increasingly seen as crucial in levelling up carmakers as new players make headway. Lucid Motors overhauled how its motor and transmission systems are designed by compressing the previously siloed teams into one. By analysing the drive as a single system and combining engineering talent across disciplines, the company created perhaps the smallest, lightest, and most efficient units on the market. Its compact, 73kg, 500kW drive unit combines a motor, transmission with differential and inverter, to produce a market-leading performance. Beyond development, Arrival is pioneering vertically integrated component production and robotic assembly to realise highly automated micro-factories – the polar opposite of traditional production lines.
Despite this, Hexagon’s industry survey of 416 global automotive professionals has revealed that the majority of traditional manufacturers are not viewing companies like this as a threat, with only 8% believing that purely EV companies can win significant market share. Prior to the announcement of looming regulatory internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle bans, the most successful manufacturers would rely on economies of scale to keep costs low, but this is rapidly changing.
For success in tomorrow’s automotive markets, companies will need to invest in more-efficient manufacturing processes that are more responsive to changes in available technologies and market demands. Modern all-EV companies have the freedom and the foresight to prepare for these changes ahead of time, allowing them to dominate conversations – and soon entire sectors – with their more dynamic manufacturing processes.
For one thing, they are demonstrating the value of virtual prototyping as innovation cycles shrink. Reducing the time from design to production is key to remaining competitive, and simulation-intensive approaches help reduce vehicle costs and enable efficiencies, while anticipating and eliminating potential defects earlier to avoid costs and delays. A great example is Valeo, which collaborated with Hexagon to develop a new electric drive unit. Using the latter’s Romax software, its engineers were able to quickly explore many different concepts to make optimal use of existing components. The result was an award-winning belt-drive mechanism that reduced costs, with a now-patented modular design that suits multiple applications from e-scooters and e-bikes to passenger vehicles. This approach reduced development time by 7-9 months, and reduced time-to-market for the Citroen AMI One from 24 months to 18 months.
More and more companies are following the Valeo route, because the fact is the ‘new normal’ of automotive manufacturing is shorter development cycles – and increased use of simulation serving cross-discipline teams is where it begins. The missing link for many manufacturers is making better digital twins so they can anticipate production outcomes, reducing guesswork so quality is assured and waste and inefficiencies are minimised. There is a significant chance that large consumer technology giants can achieve this faster in the new EV market.
Consumer technology corporations provide or integrate many of the electronic and software components of an EV in-house, and are used to operating in rapid innovation cycles. They are more experienced in employing smart manufacturing processes that apply data analytics, machine learning or cloud computing, as well as being more agile in responding to consumer and regulatory needs. The ‘digital natives’ are ahead of conventional carmakers technologically, but also culturally in their willingness to change strategy or try new approaches. Adopting smart manufacturing principles should be top of the list when it comes to any automaker’s strategy development if they want to keep up with digital native EV manufacturers.
This new breed of automotive manufacturers is making waves in what has been a very recent and unexpected revolution, propelled by their ability to attract investment to fuel costly initial product development stages. Consolidation of design, engineering and manufacturing data and brains is key to delivering an energy-efficient and cost-effective product.
Foxconn has now formally turned from smartphones to EVs, and late in 2020 announced a new EV ecosystem, as described in Hexagon’s white paper: “Foxconn has been positioning itself over the last 18 months to be a major resource to the automotive industry. Foxconn has built an open software and hardware platform for developing EVs called MIH and has attracted 1,400 companies into its ecosystem since announcing the platform in November 2020.”
This is a real statement of intent and indicative of the dwindling gap between the automotive and electronics industries. Foxconn is not alone, as the white paper continues: “Huawei’s intent is to be known as a combined Bosch and Intel of China, and be pervasive across the automotive industry.”
But automakers’ challenges in getting ahead in the EV world order are as much internal as they are external. The need to make EVs more affordable at current order volumes, coupled with delivering greater choice or ‘cars-to-order’ means traditional high-volume manufacturing lines must be replaced by more agile manufacturing, built around speed-to-market and possibly forgoing the just-in-time model for good. The challenge for incumbents is doing so, while still achieving the required profit margins.
A great example that reflects this flexibility is Škoda Auto, which collaborated with Hexagon to reduce the time required to program robotic inspection from several days to just four hours, using a new breed of robotic programming and control software. The HxGN Robotic Automation software enables manufacturers to equip greenfield factories, or retrofit existing production lines with autonomous inspection. It opens the door to Industry 4.0 by intelligently designing optimal inspection routines for new vehicle components such as doors – a task that typically requires a significant amount of attention from both a metrology and robotics professional – in a single step. The software is currently being used by Škoda Auto to deploy quality inspection cells faster to the production line, so they can be ready and waiting to gather vital quality and production data as soon as a new vehicle goes into production.
This example concerns the integration of traditional Quality Room processes into production lines. The current transformation in the automotive industry mandates vertical integration of manufacturing processes all the way from product development to final inspection, but this isn’t easy and necessitates a cultural and organisational shift to match technology investments.
Keith Perrin, senior director of digital transformation for Hexagon’s Manufacturing Intelligence division, explains: “The ecosystem is changing at a rapid pace. For a start, suppliers are now being asked for a different set of skills. They’re being asked to take part in a process that’s more vertically integrated, involving more agile ideas, like continuous improvement and continuous deployment.
“Under the new processes, if someone on the factory floor were to find a problem, he or she fixes it right there and then, involving a vertical team to get it addressed as needed. A fix is integrated and deployed ASAP. Traditionally, what would have happened is an issue would have been raised and it would be passed between departments to get a fix identified, designed, approved, tested and rolled out. Depending on the problem it might have taken days, weeks or months to get resolved. This is still happening, but new players are doing it in a much more dynamic, and often automated way.
“Now the team gets together to pragmatically address a fix, almost right there and then. Rather than going through different groups of people, pushing an issue through a process, that group of people is more likely to be a more vertically integrated team comprising all the skills needed for a fix. Since that team is given responsibility for getting it done, they can move a lot faster than older, more traditional, processes dictated.”
The ongoing changes in the automotive industry represent a seismic shift that will impact everyone involved in the sector – with even giants that until now have often been seen as too big to fail being outmanoeuvred by upstarts and newcomers. To prevent being caught off-guard by these new competitors, manufacturing organisations must embrace the future of smart manufacturing processes by proactively changing their strategies, structures and ‘tech stacks’ throughout EV development and manufacturing.
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