Imagine pulling up an application on your smart phone and tablet and assembling the features and options you want in a new car then sending off your order for delivery. It’s like a large scale pizza order, customized to your preferences. It’s a fantasy that may not be too far in the future, as automakers examine the ways that digitalisation can be incorporated within traditional automobile assembly. German automation specialist Siemens is already at work in the Indian market, developing technologies and applications that will permit a high degree of customization in the car ordering and manufacturing system.
The Digitalised Assembly Line
Automation has been a growing factor in automobile manufacturing since Henry Ford perfected the assembly line process necessary to propel cars like the Model T into prominence and popularity. At that time, his cars were only available in black because that was the only paint that would dry fast enough for use on automated assembly lines.
Today, digitalisation represents a step beyond automation. Previously, the manufacturing process had contained sub-sections. Designers created the look and feel of vehicles. Engineers created the mechanical, hydraulic and electrical systems needed for the cars to work. Production took design and engineering and built the vehicles. Sales was predominately done after the fact. Dealers sold the cars that were already made. Those discrete sections of data flow are no longer contained in the digitalised system.
The Advantages of Integrating Digitalisation
This incorporation of shared data through all points of the manufacturing process is called Industry 4.0. In essence, it’s the fourth level of industrial revolution. Basic mechanization started the process, and mass production created the second level. Computer automation and robots were the third level and, now, “smart” automation further evolves the industrial process, potentially refining every step in the consumer cycle.
For example, the concept of supply and demand suggests that the most efficient and profitable condition is when supply perfectly matches demand. Errors of forecasting by manufacturers cause losses when the consumer market is either under or over supplied. Under traditional processes, consumer demand for a particular car model is predicted and manufacturing is set up to supply that prediction. If demand exceeds prediction, then sales could be lost as consumers make other choices when that model is unavailable. When demand falls short of prediction, the manufacturer has excess stock that must be scrapped or sold at a loss.
The digitalised process potentially connects the sale with the assembly line. When a customer chooses a particular vehicle with a set of options, colours and upgrades, that data is now sent through the chain in real time, vertically and horizontally integrated through the car manufacturing process. Design and engineering information is accessed and implemented on the assembly line to create that vehicle almost instantaneously for the customer.
This of course requires flexible automation, changes to the supply chain and many more details that manufacturer must master. However, the end result for the consumer may well be a process resembling that custom pizza order, delivering exactly what the customer wants, rather than buying what the manufacturer made. While delivery may not be in thirty minutes or less, the future is moving faster and more efficiently.