Here’s how the major departments of OEMs need to transform themselves to enhance their ability to make the transition to the EV-dominated world.
Improving production flow and delivering continuous improvements continue to be critical challenges for production engineering teams. An essential step is to redesign the shop floor for maximum flexibility, to connect various stations and accommodate changes in customer demand. The goal should be to maximize throughput by improving the flow of personnel, material, and equipment.
By embracing digital twin and augmented and virtual reality technologies, production engineers can perform unconstrained simulations to continuously improve existing layouts. Some OEMs are also exploring drones instead of traditional conveyors and automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) to connect stations and make the floor flexible in three dimensions.
An increasingly complex product mix and ever-changing customer demands will require frequent modifications to production plans to allow for production leveling (sometimes called “smoothing” or heijunka). Planning in this environment requires an agile, dynamically optimized approach that uses artificial intelligence/machine learning algorithms that continuously learn and simulate scenarios to provide useful insights to production planners.
A shop floor must be agile, ready to implement quick line balancing and to reconfigure resources to meet continuously changing production plans. This is only possible on a shop floor that has truly embraced digital transformation. Manufacturing processes, operating standards, quality and safety checks should be digitized so that deviations can be reported in real-time using sensor data and analytics, then turned into near-real-time actions using a combination of artificial intelligence and human skills. People on the shop floor can use guidance from AI to make digitized systems more reactive and more predictive, which means they’ll be better able to respond quickly to changing requirements and demands.
By using a digital twin of the shop floor – machines, humans and processes – production teams can improve their capability to monitor and control almost all operations. Video analytics will help analyze the shop floor in real time and point out inefficiencies or hazardous conditions. AR/VR will assist humans in training and in addressing quality and maintenance issues. 3D printing will make the shop floor more flexible and leaner, but a robust execution strategy will be required to integrate it with conventional manufacturing.
As any manufacturer will appreciate, quality is a holistic process. OEMs must have the ability to perform digital root cause analysis at each stage of the manufacturing process and be able to turn discoveries into improvements for future product designs. Moreover, the quality process should shift from reactive to predictive. For example, using data analytics during the final inspection of EV components and assemblies can not only predict potential defects, but also generate automatic tweaks for machines on the shop floor.
As ICE manufacturing progressively gives way to EV manufacturing, the classic automotive manufacturing supply chain structure and supplier tiers will change. The industry (in fact, the larger economy) has already experienced the risks posed by supply-chain management: the semiconductor shortages have made it clear that good sourcing strategies and risk management are vital. A prime example of an EV supply chain issue is ensuring availability of key components like lithium. Tesla, for example, has secured lithium mining rights in Nevada and even plans to purchase mines outright. Competitors in the EV arena should focus on manufacturing batteries as closely as possible to production lines (or at regional gigafactories – another Tesla tactic).
A digital, analytical approach can offer real-time, end-to-end supply chain visibility with alerts and impact analysis to help mitigate the risks of sourcing materials from alternative suppliers. For many OEMs and Tier N suppliers, a block chain-based smart contracts system can provide speed and efficiency by providing ability to immediately (and automatically) switch suppliers and execute new contracts in response to changing conditions.
The shift from the manufacturing of internal combustion engine-based vehicles to electric vehicles won’t be easy, entailing multiple challenges like those described here. It will create major disruptions in the old ways of working (even ones that were highly effective). It demands an enterprise-wide kind of collaboration driven by digital technologies; all major business functions will have to take a fresh look at how they operate and reimagine them using digital tools.
A good place to start is to build a foundation for a holistic digital transformation for the ecosystem consisting of OEMs and their suppliers. Individual departments can start portfolios of digital projects that leverage today’s technologies, then progressing to a system and a culture of continuous digital innovations that accelerate their ability to respond to a changing business environment. With this model in place, OEMs can address the challenges of shifting to electric vehicle manufacturing and improve their ability to handle future disruptions.