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Rise of the smart factory

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Digital transformation along the entire manufacturing value chain is bringing about revolutionary changes to the working environment and production processes in the automobile industry…

The automobile industry is facing fundamental change. Alongside the electrification of the powertrain and autonomous driving, digitalisation is helping to drive the revolution, and networking the value chain in real-time is already more than just a vision for some manufacturers.

According to Dieter Zetsche, chairman of Daimler AG and head of Mercedes- Benz Cars, all major current trends in the automobile industry draw their inspiration from the digital world. He says the aim of Mercedes-Benz is to become the leading, most innovative automobile manufacturer when it comes to digital technologies.

The company has coined the term Industrie 4.0 to describe its digitalisation process, which extends from design and development to production – where the phrase has its origins – and finally to sales and service.

Markus Schäfer, a member of the Divisional Board of Mercedes-Benz Cars, sees the potential of Industrie 4.0 as extremely significant. According to his reckoning, the process enables man, machine and industrial processes to be intelligently networked to create individual products of high quality more rapidly simultaneously making production and manufacturing costs more competitive.

He says flexibility is another reason why Mercedes-Benz is actively helping to shape the digital revolution: The worldwide demand for passenger cars, commercial vehicles and mobility concepts is increasing. At the same time, requirements of customers around the globe are becoming increasing diverse.

Schäfer says that in the 1970s, Mercedes- Benz was able to cover most customer requirements with just three basic passenger car models – now there are 10 times as many. There is also an increasingly wide range of drivetrain variants – alongside petrol and diesel engines, hybrid and fully electric powertrains are gaining popularity.

Further, he says innovation cycles are becoming shorter, each of the factors underlining Mercedes-Benz’s belief that automobile manufacture will change from mass assembly to one-off production, with every car built to individual customer requirements.

The way the company sees it, digital transformation along the entire value chain is bringing about revolutionary changes to the working environment and production processes. “Today, an assembly step is generally performed either by employees or by robots, which are placed behind protective fences for safety reasons and can be used in other production areas only with a great deal of effort,” says Schäfer.

“In contrast, the company’s aim is real cooperation between robots, which represent power, endurance and reliability, and people, who have cognitive superiority, to facilitate different objectives: higher quality, increased productivity, new possibilities for ergonomic and age- conformant work.”

He adds: “The focus will always be on people as customers and employees. People’s experiences, creativity and flexibility will still be indispensable in many areas of automotive production. The factory of the future will in no way be without people.” Michael Brecht, chairman of Mercedes- Benz’s General Works Council, says technical changes are rapidly approaching. “To shape these properly, we need a new humanisation policy. The decisive factor is how to design the relationship between autonomy and control in the man-machine interaction.”

The way he sees it, people will tell machines what to do – or people will be told what to do by the machines. “The key is that we can prepare people very well through qualification,” he maintains.

In the Mercedes-Benz scheme of things, the smart factory is the centrepiece of digitalisation for the entire company. In the smart factory, products, machines and the entire environment will be networked with each other and connected to the Internet. Integration of the real world into a functional, digital world enables a so-called ‘digital twin’ to be created, which allows real-time representation of processes, systems and entire production shops.

“Digitalisation enables us to make our products more individual, and production more efficient and flexible. The challenge is to plan for the long term while remaining able to respond rapidly to customer wishes and market fluctuations,” says Schäfer.

He describes the smart factory as being able to respond even faster to global market fluctuations and changing customer demand, with digital production making it easier to produce increasingly complex products.

He points out that efficient use of resources such as energy, buildings or material is a decisive competitive factor – and that a digital process chain means constant inventory control.

“Components can be identified at anytime and anywhere. Production facilities can be controlled from any place. Flexible production processes, modification of existing production facilities and the installation of new facilities will allow simpler, more efficient manufacturing processes.

“This in turn will facilitate shorter innovation cycles with product innovations transferred to more model series in a shorter time.”

In the smart factory, Schäfer says interaction between man and machine using new operating interfaces will change the working environment and lifestyle models. “Mercedes-Benz is already able to digitally simulate the production process from the press plant to final assembly, and therefore to master the complexity of modern automobiles and their manufacture.

“For assembly alone, around 4 000 individual processes are examined for technical feasibility long before series production commences. Stage by stage, the smart factory concept is being realised in our global production network.”

Schäfer says the first two stages have already been clearly defined and substantially achieved. Mercedes- Benz has global component standards, standardised systems architecture and standardised automation, regulation and control technology. “Wherever investments are made, globally standardised technology modules are used in robotics and production processes. The next steps are globally applicable equipment modules and standardised working strategies.

“Before the end of the decade, this specific vision of the smart factory will come together in the form of a reference factory.”

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