Audi predicts that production-line car assembly may soon vanish, which would amount to the biggest shake-up in the way cars are put together since Henry Ford came up with the mass production method for his Model T more than 100 years ago.
Ford’s idea was revolutionary when production lines were installed at his Detroit plant in 1913 but the industry has moved on since.
Many modern cars are not turned out as all standard models, but come with an increasingly diverse specification. The cars are ordered by customers who can configure their vehicles at the dealer or via the internet.
Carmakers say it is impossible to cater for all the variants using rigid, sequential assembly lines. The change has also been prompted by pure electric versions of models, which need to be assembled alongside those with petrol or diesel motors.
Ford’s vision enables 90 million or so passenger vehicles to be turned out annually in plants around the world.
Now Audi executive Hubert Waltl at the headquarters of the Volkswagen-owned company in Ingolstadt wants to go beyond this with a modular approach.
A car sits on one of Audi’s robotic floats instead of an assembly chain at the Neckarsulm plant making the R8. (File photo, 02.11.2015. Photo credit: “Stefan Warter / Audi AG / dpa” )
Audi envisages automatically guided robot vehicles which navigate around a factory, ferrying cars in various stages of assembly to work-stations for the next construction stage.
“Production line assembly made sense 100 years ago since back then the products being turned out were identical to each other,” said Waltl.
“Today’s customers want the exact opposite of that. Each Audi is designed to be as unique as a tailor-made suit,” said the industry guru.
Intense competition in the car sector has prompted carmakers to offer a complex programme of models, engines and bodywork variants.
At the top of the car ranges, no one vehicle resembles another in terms of detail and trim. BMW says there are theoretically 10 million variations of its upmarket BMW 7 saloon to buy.
Audi’s Waltl says the switch to modular assembly should increase productivity by around 20 per cent without putting up costs.
“We wouldn’t do it if it was more expensive.”
Modular assembly using individual work areas staffed by key staff has already replaced conveyer belts at the Neckarsulm factory which turns out the R8 sports car.
The new working practices will be tried out at the firm’s engine factory in the Hungarian town of Gyor.
“This shows that the idea is no longer a pipe dream to be realized at some distant time in the future,” said Waltl.
Audi envisages a factory with some 200 work-stations, served by robot transporters. These choose the quickest way to their destination, rather like customers out shopping who switch lines in the supermarket when confronted with queues of varying lengths.
“The transporters deliver to the work-stations where the workload is lightest,” said engineer Fabian Rusitschka who works as an innovation manager at Audi. This utilizes slack capacity.
A key change is that not every vehicle has to go through the same stages of assembly. “If a customer in Africa has not ordered heated seats for his vehicle, the transporter carrying it will skip that particular work-station,” said Rusitschka.
Rubber door surrounds for a two-door car can be fitted faster than for a four-door vehicle, “so the vehicle passes through a work-station more quickly,” said the engineer. “At the end of the day you have made more cars.”
Industry expert Christoph Stuermer, who works for consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers, points out that a modular system eliminates the need to leave an assembly line idle during retooling for model variants. The system is “truly elegant,” he said.
Audi, which belongs to the world’s largest carmaker, Volkswagen, is believed to be a pioneer in reinventing car assembly.
Rivals BMW and Daimler have no current plans and Stuermer said he was not aware of any other companies pursuing similar ideas.
Working at the production line in a car factory used to be a byword for drudgery and repetitive work. Waltl says autonomous assembly makes the job more interesting and reduces the stress for workers of having to keep up with rapid production sequences.
In many VW plants, the operation time allocated to a worker to carry out a specific task is limited to 60 seconds. This leads to repetitive strain injuries and other work-related ailments.
A work-station system would allow older and even mildly handicapped employees to keep up with their colleagues, instead of their slowing down the production line.
“Work psychologists are in no doubt that such changes would lead to an improvement in employee health,” said Rusitschka.