Digital transformation and the automotive sector
British Fluid Power Association member companies Festo and SMC Pneumatics consider the growing trend towards automation and digitalisation within the automotive industry, and the enduring importance of more traditional technologies such as pneumatics within the fast-developing digital transformation landscape.
Digital transformation-related concepts such as Industry 4.0, Smart Factory and the Industrial Internet of Things are increasingly becoming key industry focuses in the drive to leverage greater business and operational efficiencies such as time-saving, greater accuracy and less machinery downtime and better data analytics; and one of the sectors where this type of technology is increasingly playing a particularly important role is that of automotive.
Seamless data sharing
Andy Parker-Bates, Product Marketing Manager – Pneumatics in Factory Automation, Festo, observes there has been a general trend towards digitalisation within the automotive industry for a number of years now. He adds that the industry is also moving more towards integrated pneumatic platforms with Fieldbus-enabled valve terminals, IO Link-enabled sensors and field level devices becoming more available. “This trend towards linking an increasing number of products onto various communications platforms allows more seamless data sharing and enables companies to integrate different components and technologies into the same network, providing greater transparency between products and technologies within a machine or production line,” he explains. “Data is now able to be passed between different components in ways that it never was before. This provides companies with faster operation, as well as higher levels of control and functionality. The result is faster speed, and greater accuracy and precision.”
Parker-Bates points out that digitalisation has also resulted in major improvements in terms of maintenance. “Nowadays, maintenance engineers don’t necessarily need to physically check components on the production line to identify a problem,” he says. “Instead, for much of the time, they can simply log in to the system to determine the status of a component and whether there are issues that need resolving.”
Batch size of one
According to Parker-Bates, many of the automotive manufacturers that Festo works with are getting ever closer to the ‘Holy Grail’ of a batch size of one within the context of Industry 4.0. He elaborates: “If you look at all the options in terms of trim, engine variants, colours etc., the automotive industry is now very close to a batch size of one most of the time because statistically it is probably quite unlikely that these companies would run two cars that are identical down the line one after the other – purely because of the sheer variety of options and choice. So, for automotive companies, the concept of Industry 4.0 is often largely about making it easier and quicker to change between one model and another – or even to factor-in slight variations when producing a particular model.”
Parker-Bates has witnessed that some manufacturers are even at a point now where customers can configure their own car specifications, place an order online and that order then goes through to the dealer at which point the specifications are sent to the plant for manufacture. “So, the customer is effectively creating the job card for the workers on the shop floor,” he says. “On this evidence, I think that automotive manufacturers are very close to realising, or have already realised to a large extent, some of the core ideas that industry 4.0 promises.”
And what about robotics? Stuart Cheyne, Team Leader – Automotive, SMC Pneumatics (UK) Ltd. comments that the density of robotics within the automotive sector is particularly high. However, he adds that it is very much the case that robotics complement and work alongside other types of automation and more traditional fluid power technology. “Certainly for tasks such as welding, adapted cylinders are required to clamp things in place before a robot arrives to weld things together – so there will always be a need for things such as valves, clamp cylinders and filter regulators etc.,” he says.
We often also hear discussions concerning whether robotics and automation, in general, will have the effect of displacing humans in the workplace, but Cheyne doesn’t believe this is so. Rather, in his view, it is a case of robots working alongside people. “However, there will increasingly be a need to up-skill people to work in collaboration with robots and other types of automation technology,” he adds. “Ultimately, however, humans will always be needed to do the things robots can’t do – they will also be needed to control and maintain the robots and other automation equipment.”
How can pneumatic or electro-pneumatic equipment systems contribute to automotive manufacturers desire for greater optimisation on the shop floor? Parker-Bates makes the point that pneumatic/electro-pneumatic solution manufacturers are embedding more and more intelligence into devices; in this way, they are becoming simpler to use, more flexible and more ‘plug and work’. “So, doing much of the configuring and programming up front often makes the devices intelligent enough to simply hook onto a network and start communicating via ethernet or OPC UA for standardised data transfer without a lot of input needed from the user,” he says. “This enables equipment and technologies supplied by multiple vendors to be connected to a single network.”
As an example, Parker-Bates explains that Festo’s recently launched Motion Terminal is a universal, programmable platform for highly flexible and adaptive automation with digitised pneumatics. “It is a software-controlled valve terminal where the valves can be configured to perform a specific task at a certain point in the machine cycle. It can then be reconfigured as part of the plc program for the next stage. For example, at a given point in the cycle, it might be important that a cylinder reaches the end of its stroke within a set time. At another point it might need to achieve a set position somewhere mid stroke within a millimetre or so in terms of accuracy.”
Cheyne makes the point that pneumatic equipment has been used within the automotive sector for many years because it offers major advantages in terms of assisting people with their day-to-day tasks. He is now also seeing a stronger move towards things such as electronic actuators, which, from an automation perspective, offer high levels of precision and which can be programmed for altered positioning,” he says. However, Cheyne points out that there remain certain distinct advantages with regard to pneumatic cylinders. “For example, the actual amount of force that can be gained from a pneumatic cylinder has always been considerably greater than an electronic actuator. Pneumatic cylinders are also currently more cost-effective in terms of purchase price. And if companies simply need a straightforward A to B movement they are probably unlikely to find something as effective as pneumatics. So, with the recognised benefits of both pneumatic and electronic actuators, it is not surprising that we are increasingly seeing the use of a combination of the two technologies within automotive plants.”
Where are automotive manufacturers in that overall journey? Cheyne has observed that an increasing number of automotive companies are becoming more aware of the benefits of digital transformation. “The automotive sector is often seen as a rather traditional type of business with regard to the products that are used as part of the manufacturing process,” he says. “Some companies often standardise on certain types of products, even when there is a potential to replace with more miniaturised pneumatic equipment. They often decide to stay with more standardised products because they believe it provides them with the desired flexibility, which may not always be the case.”
Nevertheless, Cheyne thinks an increasing number of automotive companies are becoming more aware of the benefits of digitalisation. “Certainly, some are now deploying Smart Manufacturing technologies to enable them to better predict the behaviour of their machinery,” he says. “With a greater understanding of available communication technologies and their capabilities, companies are in a much better position to know the ideal time to replace parts on a machine and determine what any occurring issues are likely to be based on analytical data. This enables companies to keep machinery running at its optimum level, as well as to avoid the greater risk of machine failure and subsequent expensive downtime. So, there is now more of an understanding that the benefits of digital technology can far outweigh more traditional approaches.”
Growing link between the physical and cyber world
Although Industry 4.0 is becoming increasingly embraced by automotive companies, Parker-Bates has witnessed that different companies are moving at different speed, meaning there isn’t really a fully harmonised vision of what the ideal end picture would look like. “Nevertheless, the link between the physical world and the cyber world is growing ever stronger; with many business and operational benefits to be had in the process,” he says.
Furthering the cause
Parker-Bates explains that Festo has strong links with relevant automation- and robotics-related trade associations, including the British Fluid Power Association (BFPA), and is keen to continue working alongside these associations in order to further the cause of automation within sectors such as automotive. Some of this work involves liaising with government statutory bodies in order to ensure high standards are maintained and further developed into the future.
Similarly, Cheyne comments that associations such as the BFPA are invaluable in continuing to champion, not just the core fluid power solutions that are so important within sectors such as automotive, but also the growing relationship this more traditional technology now has with complementary systems within the automation arena. He adds that SMC, too, is keen to get across the message that there is now a host of automation technology available, which can help automotive companies to realise a host of tangible benefits that are achievable by taking on board digital transformation concepts such as Smart Manufacturing from a data management and connectivity perspective.