A discussion of the strategies being employed by vehicle makers to get to market more quickly, at lower cost and with minimal risk
By: John Miles, global business leader for electric vehicles, and Paolo Butti, industry manager for automotive and tire, Rockwell Automation
Electric-vehicle sales in the U.S. last year reached nearly 200,000, a more than 25 percent jump from 2016. China showed even stronger growth in the sector with 770,000 vehicles sold – a more than 50 percent increase from the previous year . With one in every six cars sold around the world expected to be electric by 2025, the market is set to continue to grow quickly.
For most car makers, this translates to a need to bring electric vehicles to market as quickly as possible. The challenges presented by the opportunity to automakers are different for mature manufacturers and for younger ‘start-up’ companies, but in a crowded marketplace, the electric evolution stakes are high.
While the market’s move towards electric vehicles has multiple drivers, which are well known, from emissions to running costs and the plethora of regulations in between, the largest enablers of the new era are the improving on-board deployment of electric power and evolving manufacturing technologies in production.
The start-up challenge
For start-ups, there exists a considerable challenge to deploy production operations from a standing start. Scaling from a single person production team to a full production facility rapidly, while consistently enforcing automotive best practices in a brand new environment is no small undertaking. Many such start-ups incur production delays and higher production costs during the scaling process. Each of these challenges carries the risk of reputation damage and can result in much longer return on investment, or failure, irrespective of the viability of the final product.
Overcoming such challenges is achievable however, and the new brands coming to market across the globe show that making electric vehicles is not the preserve of established brands. Those companies with the best chance of success however, seldom, if ever, achieve it alone. Choosing the right industry partners from early in the planning process can help bring the experience and in-depth knowledge of automotive production best practices and process optimization methods that help to avoid common pitfalls. Such a partnership can also lend experience to building out the supply chain with established OEM and supply partners from around the world – invaluable knowledge and relationships not readily available to a start-up going it alone. Similarly, with the need not only to tool-up, but to hire experienced production and controls engineers, the right partners can offer further assistance in understanding the roles and job specifications to attract the right talent to the operation.
A major advantage for start-ups is specifying new production approaches and not being limited by existing production infrastructure, and it is here too, that the right partner can help start-ups to leverage this ‘greenfield advantage’ to maximise the potential of the Industrial Internet of Things.
For mature automakers the challenges are different, but the key relationship with a manufacturing technology solutions provider remains similarly important. While benefitting from the advantage of an established global supply chain and an experienced and effective staff, the disruptive technologies electric vehicles mean that fundamental changes are necessary to reach the new market quickly. Even the biggest brands in the sector face huge challenges adapting to the new drivetrains and global battery networks, for example, and it has been necessary to outsource production in some instances.
Established vehicle makers are aware of the need to produce electric variants to stay relevant and sustainable into the future and need to overcome new automation challenges in order to do so. The right manufacturing automation partnerships allow these brands to implement IIoT approaches and technologies to the retooling required by electric vehicles and achieve the production efficiency and speed to market required to compete.
Industry 4.0 – a strategic shift requirement for the electric vehicle market
Smart features and downloadable updates are making electric vehicles more like consumer-electronics products. And these smarter, more connected vehicles require a smarter, more connected production approach.
Many mature automakers already use connected operations but often only in limited ways or across only some of their operations. An Industry 4.0 strategy deploys seamless connectivity and data sharing, as well as industrial IoT technologies, at an enterprise level. The associated improvement of visibility into vehicle production processes helps workers at every level make better and faster decisions.
For example, smart machines can help teams create more efficient process workflows and more quickly identify the cause of stops for faster recoveries. Advanced analytics that monitor asset data over time helps companies predict where problems may occur, so that maintenance teams can prevent stops from occurring in the first place.
The Case for Smart, Agile Operations
An integrated automation architecture facilitates smart production by using control and information systems that share a common network, control platform, data structures and design environment. Manufacturers operating in this way have improved access to information and simplified integration of equipment into the plant environment. The flexibility proffered by these improvements allows their beneficiaries to react more quickly to market demands.
A single network seamlessly connects plant systems to each other and to the rest of the enterprise. A common control platform allows for more efficient installations, operations and maintenance. Common, standardised data structures make it easy to collect data across the enterprise and transform it into actionable information for better decision making. And a single design environment can reduce the time and cost of designing, developing and delivering automation projects.
With this architecture in place, electric vehicle makers can take advantage of connected technologies and capabilities that allow for smarter and faster production.
Three solutions being deployed by successful electric vehicle production operations include:
Scalable MES: Individual manufacturing execution system (MES) applications help manufacturers understand and manage production, without investing in a full MES software.
The applications address specific challenges, like quality, machine performance, or genealogy and track and trace. It is possible to start at the machine or work-area level with a single application and minimal infrastructure requirements and add other applications or scale up to an integrated-MES solution as production growth and return on investment allow.
Scalable Infrastructure: These offerings can help converge networks, connect plant and business systems, and give workers access to information so they can make better decisions.
Scalable infrastructure offerings can be especially valuable when operations are starting small, or if there are time, talent or budgetary constraints, as is common in electric vehicle production. Infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS), for example, can reduce the burden of designing, deploying and maintaining a network infrastructure. It also can shift a company’s network costs from a capital expense to an operating expense.
IaaS combines pre-engineered network solutions, on-site configuration and 24/7 remote monitoring into a single contract. Manufacturers should seek offerings using best-in-class technologies and architectures, that optimise the performance, efficiency and up-time of network architecture.
Smart Motion Systems: New developments in motion technology have the potential to offer huge benefits to electric vehicle production. They offer the potential of higher line speeds and reduced downtime, both of which can help manufacturers get to market faster.
Smart motion systems use independent cart technology to move vehicle parts around a plant faster than conventional mechanical solutions. This can help speed up production in a traditional body shop or in areas like battery production, where high-speed conveyance has proven to be a challenge.
The functional agility of smart motion systems allows for line changes at the push of a button to achieve fast changeovers. The systems also have fewer moving parts, which can reduce maintenance needs and improve up-time.
The companies winning the race to the marketplace in electric vehicles are not succeeding because they are established, nor are start-ups winning because they are unencumbered by established processes. In John Miles view, the companies best able to meet the challenges are those taking a strategic approach and working closely with automation technology providers that can offer the right solutions to their individual needs. There has always been space in the commercial automotive market for companies of all sizes, but the road to the present is also littered with companies large and small that have failed to adapt or been side-tracked by production challenges they were unable to overcome. Similarly, the road to the electric vehicle future is likely to see exciting start-ups fall by the wayside and, perhaps, some well-known brands fail to adapt in time to remain sustainable. In a time of exponential change in production approaches as well as likely societal changes in attitudes to vehicle ownership, I believe that those best placed to flourish will be those seeking the best practices in modern production approaches that will offer the most flexible, scalable, efficient, and, importantly, rapid route to market.
Notes to editors
Rockwell Automation, Inc. (NYSE: ROK), the world’s largest company dedicated to industrial automation and information, makes its customers more productive and the world more sustainable. Headquartered in Milwaukee, Wis., Rockwell Automation employs approximately 22,000 people serving customers in more than 80 countries.
For further information, please contact
Rockwell Automation Ltd
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Tel: 0207 043 8847.
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