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Making cars digitally

Automakers achieve greater efficiency and decreased costs with Industry 4.0-ready software solutions

by Kip Hanson, senior editor




More than a century ago, Henry Ford flipped the switch on his factory’s first assembly line. The event signaled a new day in automobile manufacturing efficiency. Later, computerized machine control and then robots further streamlined the production process – for Ford and other automobile manufacturers alike.


There’s a new kind of technology coming around the bend, however, that promises greater benefits to automakers and their suppliers than the sum of all that went before. It’s called digitalization, and if your factory isn’t ready for it, there’s a chance that your operations will soon be as obsolete as the Model T.


Visualization of product designs and simulation of factory layouts reduces rework, improves throughput and increases quality.



Digital challenges

Whether you call it digitalization, the IIoT or Industry 4.0, it’s here. Because while there might be a digital revolution taking place on many automobile factory floors, the products rolling off them are every bit as revolutionary, requiring advances in manufacturing like never before.


Consider autonomous vehicles. Most of us enter the roadways each day anticipating – or perhaps dreading – the moment we spot the first car or semi with no driver behind the wheel. Yet there’s more to the future of automobile technology than empty driver seats.


Alternative fuel and electric vehicles, zero ownership and ridesharing, mobility services, infotainment systems, smart cities and roadways that direct traffic and make humans safer. These are just a few of the challenges that automakers must grapple with.


Now consider the global manufacturer. Not only must these design and manufacturing obstacles be overcome, but overcome across multiple time zones, languages and cultures, all while maintaining quality metrics like never before at ever lower costs. Henry Ford? He had it easy.


Manufacturing execution systems help track operation status and associated documentation.



Going soft

Much of this pain can be eliminated with the right software, says Todd Bengtsson, director for automotive manufacturing solutions at Siemens PLM. “With the growing complexity of today’s production floor, manufacturers are increasingly hampered by their fragmented software environments,” he says. “There are lots of tools and lots of solutions, but very few of them talk to one another. This inability to share information causes tremendous inefficiency across the entire supply chain.”


Just as they’ve found more efficient ways to stamp out quarter panels or produce better tooling over the years, Bengtsson says manufacturers are looking to streamline their information processes, as well. They want to take data from product design, leverage it directly into the engineering, planning and manufacturing streams, and at the same time, allow designers to have a view into what's happening in each of those areas.


“The more information that you have available – and presented to you in a way that makes sense – the better able you are to make effective, timely decisions,” he says. “That’s the essence of digitalization and smart manufacturing.”


Digitalization of the factory floor is an important aspect of Industry 4.0.



One sweet suite

Siemens has addressed these obstacles with a suite of software products that are grouped into these five areas:


  • Product design: Whether it’s a well-crafted chair or a high-tech machine tool, everyone appreciates fine design. This is especially true for automobile buyers, who invest thousands of dollars in hard-earned cash into the purchase and maintenance of their vehicles. The ability to design virtual cars, then simulate, test and optimize those designs long before the first prototype is built not only gives automakers a distinct advantage during the concept phase, but provides valuable data for downstream processes once the vehicle moves into production. The result is a better product at lower cost.


  • Production planning: Another way that automakers keep product costs low and quality high is through good planning. This is best achieved when the production line can be designed in tandem with the vehicle itself, assuring maximum throughput and efficiency without the need to reconfigure machine tools or automation once the vehicle design has been finalized. Here again, the ability to share data through all aspects of auto design and manufacturing is a key component of any digitalized factory. 


  • Production engineering: Every year, the number of vehicle options increases while production quantities and lead times fall. To overcome this challenge, engineers need flexible, efficient engineering tools. One of these is Siemens’ TIA Portal, short for Totally Integrated Automation Portal. The tool integrates mechanical, electrical and automation data from the factory floor into a single platform, greatly simplifying initial setup of the production line as well as after-the-fact modifications.


  • Production execution: Once the design has been finalized, the plan is in place and the ideal manufacturing process determined, it’s time to build a car. But synchronizing the hundreds of discrete process steps with a supply chain that includes thousands of part numbers calls for extreme coordination and real-time visibility to the factory floor. Without a robust manufacturing execution system, or MES, in place, this undertaking is error prone and costly.


  • Service: What’s going on with the equipment during all this manufacturing activity is every bit as important as what’s being manufactured – at least to those responsible for maintaining it and whose livelihoods depend on solid OEE numbers. The IIoT and Big Data are modern tools in the war on machine tool downtime, and without a platform to manage and analyze all that data, the benefits of effective asset utilization, predictive failure analysis and efficient maintenance scheduling will remain forever out of reach.


These brief descriptions actually only scratch the surface of any complete “digitalization solutions” suite. As Dave Lauzun, vice president of automotive and transportation strategy at Siemens PLM notes, automakers and their suppliers must often support the entire ecosystem of manufacturing activities.


The ability to monitor power consumption throughout the factory helps manufacturers reduce costs and predict equipment failure.



Making it manageable

Still, the elephant can be eaten one bite at a time. For example, Volkswagen AG implemented Siemens Tecnomatix production planning solution to simulate how the roof rail, a component used in almost all of its vehicles, could be eliminated. During a small pilot project, manufacturing engineers simulated the needed changes at the roof rail’s welding station before actually deploying the change, resulting in fewer problems and reduced costs. The company has since expanded its use of Tecnomatix to other facilities.


Automaker Volvo has seen similar success with simulation of its robotic assembly and painting lines as well as improvements in its documentation processes, making it possible to more efficiently share engineering knowledge with its factories in China and elsewhere. The same can be said for Mahindra vehicles, which used parts of Siemens’ digitalization suite to develop an ultramodern facility in India.


“Because each of these software solutions shares a common backbone known as Teamcenter, it’s very easy to start small and expand into other modules as your needs change,” Lauzun says. “Some companies might want to do robotic simulation and then leverage what they’ve learned to help with equipment design. Others may wish to start with a design problem and expand into factory layout or production planning. Either way, it’s a very scalable solution.”


Siemens PLM

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