Audi is making its production fit for the future with the smart factory. In this factory of the future, big data – the creation and intelligent connection of large volumes of data – will facilitate data‑driven and thus highly flexible and highly efficient manufacturing. A method of production in which Audi might no longer build its cars on an assembly line but according to a radically new, disruptive concept is modular assembly. In addition to this major project, Audi is pursuing many other exciting projects for the production of the future – from the application of virtual‑reality glasses to metal 3D printing.
The complexity of automobile production is increasing. New market needs, customer expectations and the legislative framework are increasingly requiring innovative technologies and differing vehicle versions. This means that the fixed timing of the assembly line is becoming less efficient. The more the number of derivatives and variants grows, the more difficult it becomes to master high complexity and integrate new routines into the rigid, sequential process.
Audi intends to meet this challenge and to develop a completely new principle for it: modular assembly. With this method, small, separate workstations allow highly flexible working routines – in terms of both time and space. Between those workstations, driverless transport systems take over the transport of the car bodies as well as the parts required for production. A central computer precisely controls the driverless transport systems – it recognizes the needs of each individual station, thus ensuring a smooth workflow.
Audi assumes that modular assembly will result in 20 percent better productivity than the assembly lines of today. It is now being applied for test purposes at the engine plant in Győr, Hungary, and application is planned in two further projects.
At present, the key principles of this innovative production system are being worked out and tested by “arculus” – a startup company established a few months ago.
The Technical Center for Production Assistance Systems
The new driverless transport systems required for modular assembly are being created in Audi’s “Technology Development Production Assistance Systems” department. This small department has developed two types of driverless vehicle: One of them moves under control by a computer, the other moves autonomously on a defined route. Three onboard laser scanners allow the driverless transport systems to orient themselves and to recognize and avoid potentially critical situations. Audi developed the navigation software itself. It is based on automotive software and automotive‑software development processes.
The main task of the Technical Center for Production Assistance Systems is to work on new production technologies in early stages of their development. In addition to driverless transport systems, it is also working on four other projects. They comprise safe cooperation between humans and machines when working in the same space, assembly tables with assistance functions and two innovative robots: a flexible gripper arm and a special lightweight robot.
The Audi Production Lab
The Audi Production Lab, abbreviated as P‑Lab, develops and supports innovative projects for the production process – often starting with the very first idea. The department currently has five permanent employees andhas already helped to bring innovations such as metal 3D printing, human‑robot cooperation, driverless transport systems and the use of augmented reality at Audi towards series application.
The projects currently running in the P‑Lab include two big‑data projects. One of them focuses on the early recognition of mistakes in the placement of screws and bolts; the other examines the flow of components in the area of international logistics for the CKD plants (completely knocked down). Another major subject for the Audi Production Lab is data glasses. They can provide effective support for employees in production, for the planners and engineers in the factory of the future – with assisted reality, augmented reality and virtual reality.
Several future-oriented projects are running in Audi’s Toolmaking division. The structure of the new generation of press tools follows nature, with many parts made of aluminum and plastics. This reduces the weight of those tools, which until now has been up to 45 tons, by up to 20 percent and the energy required decreases by about ten percent. The result is enhanced precision in the forming of sheet‑metal parts.
The press shop, where the tools are applied, uses the latest measuring technology. The goal is to develop a complete data chain for each sheet‑metal part. The data chain already begins with the suppliers of steel and aluminum. This is another way in which Audi is enhancing its precision.
In order to guarantee the high quality of the complete car bodies, the constituent parts come together to form an Audi car body for the first time long before the start of production – as data sets on the computer in Toolmaking in Ingolstadt. This so‑called virtual assembly process, which is based on exact optical measurements, saves a lot of time and work.
Another area of activity of Audi Toolmaking is remote maintenance. As a central support provider, the remote‑maintenance portal oversees a large volume of equipment at the Audi plants all over the world. If technical problems occur at any of those plants, experts can access the machinery via a secure connection and provide help online.
Audi creates valuable synergies at its newly established metal 3D printing center, which is located in Toolmaking in Ingolstadt. Specialists from Toolmaking and from the technical center for casting in production planning are working intensively on metal printing there. In the medium term, this technology has the potential to become firmly established in series applications. Using the laser melting method, metal powder is processed into complex steel and aluminum parts, which would otherwise be very difficult or impossible to produce. This important technology is being further developed in the metal 3D printing center. Audi is already producing parts for series-production tools with metal 3D printers. In the future, printed car components for small model series are also conceivable.
The job of logistics is to make sure that the materials required for production are always available punctually, in top quality and flexibly. In the Logistics department, Audi is working on the application of new automated transport systems that can independently guide themselves thanks to laser scanners. In the Logistics Center, which is directly adjacent to the main Audi plant in Ingolstadt, tests are already running with transport systems such as autonomous forklift trucks and driverless floor conveyors; series operation is scheduled to start in 2017.
Transport drones could be a supplement to these new transport systems – they are able to take urgently required parts to the assembly workstations by air in a very short time. Audi recently performed successful test flights in the Ingolstadt plant on a work‑free day, with safety as the top priority. Further tests are to follow while normal production is operating.
Big-data applications have very high potential especially in the field of logistics. At the Audi plant in Neckarsulm, an interdisciplinary project team has now started to connect data from all areas relevant to logistics – from suppliers to road transport to the entire production value chain – and to analyze it. One of the first applications aims to ensure that the shipping companies commissioned by Audi pick up cars from the plant as soon as they have been produced. This minimizes the cars’ standing times as well as space requirements on the parking lots.
Logistics is a fascinating activity – the new “Audi Logistic Challenge” app allows non specialists to experience its core functions. Audi itself developed the game for smartphones and tablets. “Audi Logistic Challenge” will be available before the end of this year in the App Store (iOS) and the Play Store (Android).