Digital technologies in automotive production: About smart glasses and sustainable processes

Nick Borislavski, Vice President Global Manufacturing Engineering at BENTELER Automotive, on the networking of humans and machines, smart digital solutions in times of Corona and environmentally friendly production.

Due to the Corona pandemic additional hygiene and safety measures have been implemented in our plants, including new distance rules. Did this also involve changes in our production methods, that they had to be even more automated?

No, our comprehensive measures already ensure the safety of our colleagues. However, further automation does indeed make sense in some areas: For example, in highly industrialized countries and for customers where we know that call-off volumes are very stable. Automated production lines can produce higher volumes but are less flexible than more manually operated systems. To ensure that we can ideally serve the various customer requirements at all times, we have chosen a mix of automation and conventional production methods.

We are all familiar with the pictures of the Industrial Revolution, where workers stood close together, close to the assembly line. How does a plant, a factory look like in 2020?

It varies depending on the industry and location. But for us as an automotive supplier it is rare for employees to work close together. Thanks to advanced automation, two or three people now operate and fill a large plant – so there is enough distance between them. For example in our Smart Factory in Spain. Here we use the latest digital technologies from production to logistics.

All in all, digital technologies and instruments allow work processes to be intelligently linked. Humans and machines work together and support each other. But even in the future, digital technologies will not replace human skills such as social competence and creativity. Instead, operations within the professions will change.

You just mentioned the high degree of digitalization our Smart Factory in Spain. What exactly characterizes it?

Our plant in Mos, Spain focuses on welding, painting and laser cutting. It is equipped with the latest digital technologies. These include, for example, in future usage of autonomous intelligent vehicles (AIV): they ensure an independent, rapid flow of products and materials in the plant. Since these vehicles are available 24 hours a day, we can increase productivity. The machines in the plant monitor their own status and request maintenance in good time. This technology is called "Predictive Maintenance". It avoids production stops and minimizes service costs. Big Data architectures offer the possibility of evaluating and processing large amounts of data in a short time. Our region Southern Europe also uses 3D printing to quickly and cost-effectively produce missing tools and materials.

Is a Smart Factory better equipped against a pandemic – or currently: against a possible second wave of infections?

In our Smart Factory, the machines communicate with each other: this means that we can immediately call up all the data at any time and at any process step via computer. In addition, production, call-off figures and logistics can be controlled better and more efficiently than if the data were entered and analyzed manually. And yet, in the event of a pandemic, when people are unable to go to work, even such a plant would come to a standstill – because there, too, we need employees to insert parts into the machines and carry out maintenance work. But a Smart Factory is of course less vulnerable than a conventional plant, where hundreds of people work in shifts and maintenance work cannot be planned so well.

But the pandemic has revealed quite different challenges.

What are they?

Up to now we have in some areas purchased machines from one supplier worldwide. These were then sent from Germany, for example, to our locations around the world. This was also possible during the pandemic, although there were occasional delays. However, due to travel restrictions, it was impossible to send the specialized technicians who set up and program these machines after they were assembled. However, we quickly found an alternative solution in order to be able to continue to supply our customers on time: The local teams took over responsibility for the installation and the technicians supported them in setting up the machines via smart glasses, i.e. data glasses. In the future, we plan to install remote access on all machines so that they can be serviced from anywhere in the world. This will make us less dependent and at the same time protect the environment, as our technicians will no longer have to travel around the world.

This is a good keyword: How can production lines be designed to be not only efficient but also environmentally friendly?

This is a major topic we are intensively engaged in – especially since the equipment we buy is in use for years, sometimes decades. That's why we make sure when we purchase equipment that emissions and energy consumption not only meet today's standards, but also meet those of the future. Nowadays, unfortunately, many things are sorted out and replaced by new ones after a very short time. Our goal at BENTELER is to use the equipment as long as possible in terms of sustainability – because its production also consumes resources. At the same time, we save money that we can use more effectively elsewhere. For example, by making our manufacturing processes even more efficient and by continuing to develop environmentally friendly technologies in the future – in the end, we only have one world.