The next frontier for automotive manufacturing cost leadership – Industry 4.0

The automation of automotive production stands as a prime example of how legacy systems such as traditional assembly lines that use robots for no more than assembly and welding, have much to gain by aspiring to reach the ultra-efficiency of Industry 4.0.  While automotive automation may not be shooting rockets into space, it is now viewed by many as the next frontier for cost efficiency in manufacturing and controls engineering.

A bit of future-gazing once in a while can often serve as a useful exercise in benchmarking where one might be in a particular industry sector and provide an invaluable guide for how a supplier or company may shape its future efforts and investments. So, where do we see automotive manufacturing in 3-5 years from now? The automotive sector is seen by many to be leading the way in transitioning towards an Industry 4.0 future.

This trend is underscored by data derived from the recent State of Industry 4.0 Survey, conducted by Molex in collaboration with Dimensional Research, which found that 100% of survey respondents thought they would benefit from having additional Industry 4.0 capabilities. Industry players saw their goal, understandably, as building better products (69%), but they also wanted to do this while reducing costs (58%). Clearly, the cost structure and consequent value proposition of Industry 4.0 is rising to the top in driving forces for this transition.

While hope for these technology advancements is high, confidence is not lacking. Over 80% of our survey respondents said they will meet Industry 4.0 goals within the next 5 years, on the understanding that significant gains could be achieved by boosting the efficiency of robots, machines and other manufacturing assets (58%). More than 50% of respondents said that enabling greater flexibility on manufacturing lines was vital.

Automotive evolution
Perhaps more than most sectors, the automotive industry’s evolution over the past many years has been defined by a number of socio-cultural issues, all of which played important roles in shaping how the global automotive industry looks today. Japan’s post-war push for fuel efficiency, for example, allied to ‘lean manufacturing concepts,’ shifted the automotive power balance towards Asia. More recent advancements in the autonomous and electric vehicle (EV) area appear to have heightened this shift, with China becoming prominent influencers in battery management systems and related technology.

Notably, cultural differences also influence how manufacturing operations are implemented. Companies in the West are much more likely to prescribe strictly enforced, highly standardized controls specifications, while a manager of a plant in Asia is more likely to create his/her own specifications based on local requirements, rather than be held to a global standard.  This more open approach comes with both costs and benefits.  Local autonomy of the specifications can contribute to greater experimentation and innovation in production processes.  This can facilitate an accelerated rate of adoption of Industry 4.0 based technologies.  At the same time, greater variability in controls strategies within an organization or a plant can ultimately be more costly due to the complexities of managing multiple and dissimilar controls systems and the increased spare parts inventories and training needed to support them.

Regardless of an automaker’s geographic location or corporate culture, one thing is certain: the implementation of Industry 4.0 technology is taking place in the automotive industry on a global level.

Avoiding the downtime money pit
Keeping production lines running smoothly and reducing downtime have long been a goal for manufacturers, and figures suggest that downtime costs in automotive plants are higher than in other sectors. In fact, a Thomasnet study estimated downtime costs at upwards of $22,000 per minute* prompting many solutions to be developed with the aim of keeping a production line running. This data point, combined with the scale and complexity of automobile production worldwide, have been the main catalysts that have driven the evolution of automation technology over the years through the collaboration of automotive controls engineers, line builders, machine builders, controls device suppliers, and component suppliers. 

Molex’s value in  the area of downtime reduction started as a supplier of industrial connectivity solutions.  Our BRAD product line, for example, introduced the concept of “plug and play” wiring to the North American automotive industry, where the cost savings were significant enough that it became an industry standard.

Downtime will always be critical, and it’s not difficult to see why. When the traditional auto assembly line comes to a halt, at least a dozen other processes are halted with it. That’s why automation experts, and automotive automation experts in particular, are always thinking 10 years ahead about how to keep lines running with the least downtime.

Industry 4.0 — Taking Downtime Reduction and Plug and Play to the Next Level
A fundamental promise of Industry 4.0 is the real-time availability of data derived from greater plant-wide communications, sensing technology, and computing resources in controls devices, edge devices, and the cloud.  While real-time operations can’t be achieved literally, we are now seeing industrial Ethernet communication technology achieve even faster speeds and increasing data transmission rates while maintaining highly deterministic performance levels that would amaze industry veterans of just 20 years ago.

 It should come as no surprise, considering the cost of downtime, that one of the primary use cases for Industry 4.0 in the automotive industry is downtime reduction. With real-time assembly-line data becoming the norm rather than the exception, automotive end-users and suppliers are leveraging this technology to monitor diagnostics on industrial controls devices, the communication infrastructure, and the power distribution system to prevent and anticipate device or infrastructure failures that might halt production. With the added benefit of increased availability of computing power in smart devices and edge devices, as well as AI technology to help refine predictive and preventative maintenance models, Industry 4.0 technology should eventually contribute to dramatic improvements in production efficiency through the reduction of downtime.  Considering that, according to some surveys, the average manufacturing plant experiences 800 hours of downtime per year***, the potential for cost savings in automotive using Industry 4.0 technology for predictive and preventative maintenance is compelling.

The drive for flexible manufacturing
Compared to the smart devices we use in our homes, which can often be set up and configured through a series of screen prompts on our smart phones, today’s automation and controls systems and the peripheral supporting devices still require quite a bit of manual programming and configuration from skilled technicians to get a process running efficiently and safely.  In addition, today’s control systems are still highly Programmable Logic Controller (PLC)-centric, centrally controlled, and protocol dependent.   This can add some obstacles to the ability to re-use the programming work and software engineering from one job to another, unless the exact same system and set of devices are re-used.  Molex believes this is another great opportunity for value creation under Industry 4.0.

While our role as a supplier of industrial connectivity solutions is widely recognized in the automotive industry, we have also played an integral role in supplying industrial communication technology to many of the controls and robotics suppliers involved in automotive production operations.  In much the same way, we introduced the concept of plug and play wiring systems to simplify the installation and replacement of devices on automotive production lines from a wiring perspective. We view Industry 4.0 as an opportunity to develop hardware solutions based on industry standard communication protocols, combined with software-based engineering tools, that de-couple devices from the programming and configuration required to support the overall controls system.  The end result is not only plug and play wiring, but essentially, plug and play automation as well. 

Imagine if you will, a controls system populated with devices that, at their core, function more like today’s smart phones from a configurability and processing standpoint.  They could communicate easily with other devices through a variety of wired or wireless networks (Ethernet, in this case, any industrial Ethernet protocol, WiFi, 4G/5G, or Bluetooth).   A variety of apps could be installed, allowing the device to support various control, monitoring, or analytics functions.  Similar to the way we can call and text between any brand of smart phone, regardless of the model or apps they run, we envision controls devices communicating and sharing data with each other in the same open fashion in the future without compromising the performance of the control system as a whole. 

 At Molex, we see Flexible Automation Modules (FAMs) fulfilling this vision from a hardware standpoint. As a core building block of the automotive automation platform, FAMs offer highly configurable and customizable connectivity and control. They essentially allow the creation of autonomous ‘islands of automation’ which enable distributed control and the implementation of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) apps to speed the development of flexible, modular and connected manufacturing machines. And this all happens regardless of what control ecosystem a customer’s plant has adopted. Indeed, the control system is no longer the determining factor in how it can drive enhanced automation.

As we continue our leap towards software engineering, this architecture decoupling approach should ultimately facilitate line modification for vehicles of different brands and models more through software and device configuration changes, with less need for redesigning and retooling. Importantly, such an approach would give customers more flexibility in their hardware options, and more scalability in their controls systems with an increased ability to re-use engineering capital from one project to another. This represents a whole new level of speed and customization through plug and play.

With all of these advancements. it’s reasonable to say that automotive is at the forefront of meeting the challenges of industry 4.0, and likely has the most to gain. We’re already seeing experiments in molding entire vehicle chassis. Conventional industrial conveyor belt approaches are being challenged by innovative uses of robotics serving in several roles other than routine assembly and welding jobs. The future automotive automation picture will not appear overnight. Rather, pockets of companies will experiment with how to streamline their manufacturing, and developments are likely to be progressive and incremental.

Making the next frontier the new reality
Through decades of experience helping companies reduce their line downtime and cost, Molex now looks ahead to the next frontier for automotive cost savings through the industry’s advance to Industry 4.0. We envision this will manifest itself in two ways.  The first is by providing enabling technologies that allow our robotics, controls, device, integrator and machine builder customers to incorporate into their products the communication and controls features needed to achieve their Industry 4.0 objectives.  These objectives can range from adding safe or non-safe communication or control to the system, remote access to support remote monitoring and diagnostics, IO, cloud connectivity, to ultimately implementing XaaS business models.  The second is as a supplier of controls devices, such as the FAM, that complement the Industry 4.0 goals of our end-user customers.  By providing more flexible solutions and devices in these two areas, the potential for cost savings that could be realized in the automotive industry extend even further than those discussed earlier. Increased flexibility and scalability should also translate into lower engineering costs for device and equipment suppliers, as well as faster time to market for new systems, ultimately resulting in reduced capital equipment costs and lower total cost of ownership of the production equipment for the automotive end-users.

Within the context of taking automation in the automotive industry to the next evolutionary phase through Industry 4.0, a number of interesting sub-plots are unfolding.  One question is, which automotive companies will realize the benefits of Industry 4.0 first?  At the same time, there is a race to establish a leadership position in supplying this technology among the controls and device manufacturers supporting the automotive industry globally, as well as a global race to establish manufacturing superiority among the manufacturing “superpowers.”  In all cases, the stakes are high, and from my vantage point, it’s an exciting time to be involved in automating the automotive industry.  Ultimately, we should all be winners, as Industry 4.0 should ultimately deliver better made, better performing cars at more competitive costs than ever.

** “Midea completes acquisition of German robot maker Kuka”

*** “Manufacturing Downtime Cost Reduction with Predictive Maintenance”

Senior Manager, Business Development