Smart manufacturing’s key role in the pivot to electric vehicles

Keith Perrin, Senior Director – Digital Transformation, Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence, discusses how automotive manufacturing must evolve rapidly in order to keep apace with the shift to electric vehicles (EVs).

Automotive manufacturing has held an enormous influence over general manufacturing methods for over a century, shaping modern life through advances in production line and supply chain processes.

The shift from internal combustion engines (ICEs) to electric vehicles (EVs), which has accelerated since the pandemic, brings with it immense upheaval to the industry and demands a new approach to car manufacturing.

The recent numbers are staggering – sales of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) rose by 40% and plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) by 74% worldwide in 2020, with the main growth stemming from Europe.

But for OEMs and the supply chain, there are major challenges ahead as revealed in Wards Intelligence’s report, commissioned by Hexagon: The electric vehicle pivot: Why smart manufacturing, not scale, may be the key to success.

A disrupted sector

The path towards a 100% EV future represents the most significant change in the automotive sector since the Model T Ford in 1908, and with that comes a transformation in the entire manufacturing process and supply chain.

90% of the components supplied to ICE cars are redundant in the new EV supply chain, leaving the door wide open for external competition. Notably, this includes players from the global electronics sector, which is now far more closely aligned to car manufacturing than it was previously.

But is this potential threat being acknowledged by established industry players? The report’s survey data suggests maybe not.

Only 8% of respondents viewed pure-play EV manufacturers winning market share as a threat. As the report details, new challengers entering the EV space have a number of logistic and economic advantages which will require existing manufacturers to re-think their strategy to remain competitive.

Economies of scale still the answer?

Traditionally, economies of scale have been a car manufacturer’s friend. Since Ford with the Model T first presented the possibilities of mass production, scaling up has been a primary strategy for keeping costs down.

Aligned with this, the ‘just in time’ method pioneered by Toyota in the 1970s delivered significant improvements in both quality and capacity. But recent issues with supply chains brought about by freak weather incidents, the Suez Canal blockage and the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the fragility of this methodology.

The development of EVs has provided the automotive industry an opportunity to start afresh with a new way of doing things that doesn’t lean so heavily on economies of scale and is more resistant to supply chain disruption.

Smaller, cheaper ‘microfactories’ have been designed and built to deliver EVs at a much lower cost than the usual $1 billion+ plants, with fully automated production processes reducing costs even further.

Becoming smarter

One of the key benefits of the ‘just in time’ method is avoiding waste, but this is achievable without the inherent risk of supply chain disruption. Smart manufacturing offers OEMs and the supply chain an opportunity to optimise processes at every stage of EV production – from design to assembly line – through an interconnected array of sensor technology, autonomous QC and AI-driven software.

By delivering improvements in the productivity, quality and connectivity of design and manufacturing processes, material wastage and time-to-market can be reduced.

The harvesting of data and putting it to work in smarter, more autonomous ways is fundamental to the future of EV and ICE car manufacturing. For example, ŠKODA AUTO’s tailor-made smart measurement cells have significantly increased measurement capacity and quality as part of an initiative to reconfigure their inspection processes for automated 3D optical systems instead of tactile measurement.

Using smart systems such as these to increase the level of automation in manufacturing processes gives EV industry manufacturers a much-needed opportunity to maximise profitability and quality throughout the product lifecycle and compete with a raft of new players entering the market.

The need for change

The old car industry was a finely-tuned machine based on OEMs assembling parts from suppliers. Since the pivot to EVs, the traditional norms have started to disappear and people are looking with fresh eyes about car manufacturing, which means re-tooling.

However, this is not just an engineering problem, the entire business model needs to be re-tooled and the new players entering the market do not have that problem.

Trying to adapt to the new world might appear chaotic, but it is, ultimately, just a different way of doing things. The rates of innovation with these new methodologies iterate and deliver much faster than before and the longer companies take to adapt to the new way, the further behind they will become.

The Wards Intelligence report from Hexagon reveals that while awareness in this sector of smart manufacturing is growing, full engagement is still two or three years away. With the automotive industry on the threshold of immense change, those who get to grips now with all that smart manufacturing technology has to offer are giving themselves a crucial advantage in an increasingly competitive landscape.

Explore all these themes and more by downloading the whitepaper now.

Image: courtesy Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence

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