Making the Grade: Electric vs Internal Combustion

Jon Lawson

What will the factory of the future look like? How can the auto industry manage the transition from IC engines to EVs? Automation expert Joerg Reger talks to Juliet Elliot

As the world migrates from internal combustion (IC) engines to electric vehicles (EVs), the mainstream media spotlight usually falls on the showroom products and their propulsion technologies. However, behind the scenes, an equally revolutionary change is occurring in manufacturing to bring these new products to market consistently and competitively.

The old ways of adapting, in which dedicated facilities were optimised to deliver the maximum output with consistent quality at the lowest cost, worked fine for stable product lines and predictable future demand. But such an approach is commercially risky when future demand – and even the preferred product technologies – are uncertain.

During this current decade, IC engines, fuel cells, EVs and hybrids will jockey for position in the market. They will run on gasoline, diesel, alternative fuels (including hydrogen) and battery power. The manufacturing volume split for the different variants will depend on such factors as regional legislation on emissions and taxation, consumer appetite for the product and the pace of technical development. Even the relationship between the end user and their vehicle will be challenged through concepts such as MAAS (mobility as a service) in which ownership of a personal vehicle is no longer required.

The supply chain also faces uncertainty, whenever the preferred battery technology changes. Current battery packs are assembled from modules, which themselves contain multiple cells. Manufacturers seem divided over whether to buy-in cells or modules from suppliers. Future batteries are expected to evolve from being replaceable items to becoming sealed for life, like smart phones. As cell-to-pack technology becomes established, modules will no longer be required, reducing cost and accelerating the move towards battery assembly in-house, within the vehicle assembly plant.

How, then, can any manufacturer confidently commit to the long-term facility investment required to deliver the next generation of vehicles?

Auto makers and their major suppliers have traditionally progressed cautiously, through evolutionary steps. The investment cost associated with vehicle manufacture has always necessitated caution in new model and facility planning. This means many automotive companies are culturally unprepared for life within a more dynamic and uncertain environment, such as that now facing the industry.

Flexibility is the Key to Survival

Future survival will require manufacturing flexibility and agility; the capacity to switch production volumes and product mix rapidly, while remaining cost-competitive.

According to Joerg Reger, managing director, auto OEM business line at ABB Robotics, flexibility does not mean sacrificing minimum costs; rather, ensuring that costs are minimised whatever the product mix demanded by the market.

This requires a change in mind-set from the conventional approach to facility planning, with its ‘long line’ production methods.

ABB works with many OEMs to build their manufacturing. It advocates the use of manufacturing cells, which can be quickly brought on stream or reprogrammed and repurposed, to adapt to fluctuations in demand.

Reger reckons the traditional line may still be appropriate for final assembly, as long as it is supported by flexible manufacturing cells. “These do not require changes to the overall facility and, more importantly, can be repurposed without loss of output to accommodate changes in model mix. Modern automated robot systems combine high productivity and consistent quality with the flexibility required, effectively helping automotive OEMs and their supply chain to future-proof their businesses,” he says.

“The evolution of propulsion technology is now so rapid that today’s optimum powertrain may become uncompetitive within just a year or two,” Reger continues. “The manufacturing solutions chosen for that powertrain at the outset may have to be revisited as the vehicles themselves are redesigned. Fundamental decisions, such as ‘kitting’ assemblies at suppliers or completing them in-house may be reversed. This level of change would be unthinkable with traditional dedicated facilities.”

Simulation Accelerates Commissioning

Typically, ABB prefers to work in close partnership with customers, not merely supplying systems but contributing to the manufacturing strategy and helping to define the facility. To help manufacturers cope with the pace of change and the continual reduction in new product lead times, ABB advises making extensive use of ‘digital twins’ of manufacturing cells, created in a simulation environment such as RobotStudio. This means simulating every aspect of a cell’s operation virtually, then studying the effects of any changes to validate the consistency and quality of the output.

“Simulation allows much quicker calibration of a new facility, with shorter commissioning time, and means the customer can bring the product on-stream quickly and seamlessly,” explains Reger. “It also enables a customer to investigate ‘what if’ scenarios, to identify how changes in product mix or architecture can best be managed and how any knock-on effects within the plant can be minimised.”

Reger recommends starting small and scaling up. A cellular robotised manufacturing structure provides smart solutions based upon a combination of applications for each cell. The first cell can be used to validate the approach and set production standards, which can then be replicated as many times as necessary to keep pace with the required rates of production as demand increases.

“This approach helps both with ramp up and ramp down, and ensures flexibility is retained throughout the plant’s life, as cells can be decommissioned, moved or repurposed,” he says. “Put simply, ensuring the production facility can adapt may mean the difference between corporate success or failure, such is the current level of change in technology, legislation, purchase incentives and consumer demand.”

A cornerstone of the imminent revolution in manufacturing plants will be the increase in computing power by an order of magnitude on the shop floor, connecting and monitoring every component. As an example, the spray nozzles on ABB’s automated painting robots have RFID and vibration sensors, to sense if they are misfiring. This means conditions that could cause faults in the finished article can be identified and corrected before they develop. Greater computing power and communication also permits even more customisation of individual vehicle specifications to be readily accommodated within the manufacturing process.

Collaborating with Robots

The most recent development in robotic automation has been the growth in collaborative robot (cobot) applications in which a robot works in synergy with its human counterpart, each taking advantage of the individual strengths of the other.

Advances in safety precautions have made it possible to operate suitably designed robots alongside human workers, without screens or fences to inhibit their interaction. This has opened up a new range of possibilities for enhanced productivity, quality and collaboration, for both existing and new robot users. ABB’s cobots, for example, are designed so that customers need not rely on in-house programming specialists, meaning organisations that have historically low levels of automation are able to operate their cobot within minutes of installation, without specialised training.

Reger feels the automotive manufacturing environment is facing unprecedented upheaval and is strewn with potential pitfalls. “The integration of EV production into existing assembly sites can present many challenges, not least being the prediction of future demand split and the consequent allocation of facility footprint,” he says. “Most manufacturers are trying to maximise the commonality of facilities such as paint or body shop to minimise capital spend, so optimising the integration is central to achieving economies of scale. By using simulation techniques, customers can ensure they squeeze the maximum benefit from every penny spent, before committing to major capital investment, while cobots can offer the ultimate combination of flexibility and productivity.”