Published on 29 January, 2021 in Sustainable Manufacturing
The European automotive industry is facing strong competition from Asia, as well as the economic challenges of the pandemic. It needs to develop innovative, future-proof strategies and technologies that will boost both efficiency and sustainability. Tony Seba from Stanford University believes that by 2025, no more new vehicles with (pure) combustion engines will be sold and there will be a move towards battery or hydrogen-powered fuel cells. Meanwhile, the industry faces falling sales, increasingly strict emissions regulations, new technologies, digitisation and changing consumer needs. Companies must respond by converting their production lines; becoming more agile; and introducing innovations that provide a competitive edge.
Gaining an advantage through electrification
A key solution in the sustainability battle is electrification. At the same time, changing consumer and market needs must be addressed. Vehicles must be produced more rapidly, more flexibly and at a lower cost. They need to meet new regulations on emissions; the collection, transmission and use of traffic-related data; and end-of-life directives. Strategies based on smart factory solutions will enable European automotive players to gain a competitive advantage by streamlining production processes and rationalising supply chains, in parallel with a move towards new drive technologies.
A survey by the Chemnitz Automotive Institute (CATI) and AMZ predicts that by 2025 every fourth car from European plants will be powered electrically. Currently, the European economy is too dependent on imported e-mobility technologies, such as battery cells. The industry therefore needs to expand its production sites and drive innovation.
The main competition comes from Asian manufacturers, whose cost-effective industrial base gives them a significant advantage, along with mass production strategies. They now dominate the global production of many e-mobility products. For instance, studies show that most of the world's battery cells are produced in Asia. The European e-mobility industry needs to introduce new technologies that will enable the cost-effective production of high-quality e-mobility products.
AI and fuel cell and battery production
So far, Europe has failed to really commercialize battery cell production. There are increasing numbers of battery cell factories, but these add little value to the European economy. The automotive industry should perhaps focus on the development of fuel cells as an alternative to pure battery vehicles. However, it lacks the infrastructure needed to produce fuel cell technology for the mass market. There needs to be a political framework that will keep the price of hydrogen low, along with appropriate taxation. The EU needs to be proactive in providing the technology, the framework and the production conditions for the new mix of different drive technologies.
Artificial intelligence (AI) can achieve a breakthrough in this area, boosting the efficiency of highly complex production lines. Data collected using AI-based technology can bring new insights for optimising processes. For example, predictive maintenance can identify wear patterns and anomalies that will counteract machine failures, downtimes and errors. AI and sensor technology will help European manufacturers to create a level playing field, dramatically reducing the cost advantage that Asian competitors enjoy. At the same time, AI can help to capture market share in Blue Ocean segments.
Central data management is also essential, including KPIs and OEE data, the visualisation of sensor data, and the virtual storage of process data. By increasing process quality and agility, AI can create opportunities for the production of customer-specific, complex, high-quality e-mobility products. The automotive industry must become bolder and more innovative in using these new technologies.
The smart factory
The smart factory involves future-oriented, flexible approaches that reconcile production with elements such as continuous digital supply and value-added chains; more agile process flows; and the close link between production, quality, customer needs and lifetime traceability. These tools will help manufacturers to boost profitability and stand out from the competition. Digitisation, track and trace, value chain participation, improved networking, predictive maintenance, predictive quality, integrated production planning and process visualisation will all play a role in the smart factory of the future. OMRON’s solution is its innovative-Automation! model.
So how should automotive companies make their production more innovative and competitive? Edge computing offers numerous opportunities: machines can be coupled more effectively, and data can be collected, structured and analysed at the machine level (‘the edge’) via powerful sensor technology. Added to this are remote services, the integration of additional sensor technology, machine identification, cyber security and the use and conversion of data and communication protocols.
But that's not all. Mechatronics and IT solutions are increasingly merging, supporting more efficient and flexible production processes. Tangible examples are smart new industrial robots and mobile and collaborative robots (cobots). And the components of modern production processes can now be brought together in the cloud. Companies will benefit from central and transparent monitoring of all machines, plants and components using control-based software modules or cloud-based functions.
Another component of the smart factory is augmented reality (AR). This enables companies to obtain powerful, computer-generated information. The flexible, autonomous control and optimisation of production processes are only just beginning in many places. But manufacturers who start to explore the possibilities can then start to gain a lead on their global competitors.
OMRON’s support for automotive players
OMRON integrates state-of-the-art AI technologies into e-mobility manufacturing and production systems to improve stability and flexibility. We offer established technologies and transformative solutions that meet the specific needs of European e-mobility manufacturers, including AI-driven, predictive quality and response capabilities. These will help machine operators to detect and respond to changes in critical parameters in real time before product quality suffers. AI also provides valuable insights that can be incorporated into new product designs and optimized production strategies. Read more about our solutions for the automotive industry.
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