The future has long been here: The digital transformation is changing the products as well as their production. Module for module, Mercedes-Benz is networking the entire automotive value chain – from design, through production, to sales and service. The fourth industrial revolution is accelerating more and more. The foundations for a completely connected “smart factory” are set.
Digitalization, robotics, artificial intelligence – even recently this all sounded more like science fiction than a Swabian production hall. Today, these developments are changing industrial production fundamentally. Mercedes-Benz understands "Industry 4.0" to be the digitalization of the entire value chain. Physical and digital processes are becoming increasingly intertwined. This also includes networking with customers: Their needs and demands are and remain the guiding principle of all of the company's work.
A laboratory for new solutions
Anyone who wants to keep impressing customers in the future, needs not only to deliver excellent products. But at least as important are fast, flexible and individual solutions. Even today, hardly ever two identical S-Class vehicles leave the assembly line in Sindelfingen. The diversity of the drive versions is also increasing. How can such complex tasks be resolved efficiently? The future of production belongs to the intelligent networking of man, machine and industrial processes. All these aspects are concentrated in one vision at Mercedes-Benz: the Smart Factory.
Mercedes-Benz is following five major objectives with the smart factory:
The smart factory allows production to respond even faster to global market fluctuations and changing, even more individual customer demand. Digital production also makes it easier to produce increasingly complex products.
Efficient use of resources such as energy, buildings or material stocks is a decisive competitive factor; a completely digital process chain also means constant inventory control: components can be identified at any time and anywhere. Production facilities can be controlled from anywhere.
Flexible production processes, simplified modification of existing production facilities and the installation of new facilities allow simpler, more efficient manufacturing processes. This in turn allows shorter innovation cycles, and product innovations can be transferred to more model series in a shorter time (time-to-market).
Active interaction between man and machine, also using new operating interfaces, will change the working environment in many areas, e.g. in training and ergonomics. Taking demographic changes into account, this opens up new perspectives when creating new working and lifestyle models.
From vehicle configuration and ordering by the customer to the definition of required parts and their procurement, and then to production and delivery. To put this in visionary terms: "Once ordered, a vehicle looks for its production location and machine by itself."
The real and digital world are merging
Thanks to the complete networking of all participants with one another and with the Internet, the "Smart Factory" can integrate the real world into a digital one. A "digital twin" maps processes and systems in real time – even entire factory halls. Technical feasibility is therefore clarified on the computer, long before series production starts. Mercedes-Benz is systematically pushing ahead with the transformation to a fully networked production. Many innovative procedure have already been introduced, for instance, 3-D printing or virtual reality.
Use in rapid prototyping (e.g. sand-casting moulds for engines), protective covers (e.g. for tooling in man-robot cooperation), tools (e.g. gripping elements)
Machines assist their users: The path to be followed by lightweight robots can be generated by “demonstration”, i.e. the worker leads the robots and the machine learns the path
Worldwide availability of production data: For example, as the lead plant for compact models, Rastatt is able to access production data from all the other plants in the worldwide production network, e.g. Kecskemét, and would even be able to reprogram the robots in operation there.
The digital vision of production
As early as 2015, Mercedes-Benz specifically showed in which direction the compass needle is pointing: The "Concept IAA" research vehicle has been developed and built almost entirely digitally – in just ten months. The designers and engineers were networked for this purpose from the outset. Their "working material": a dynamic, three-dimensional data model. In order to optimize the aerodynamic functions, for example, the engineers performed calculations on the computer for approximately 300 flow variants.
This example shows: Humans and machines working together will play a key role in the future. What form can responsible solutions take here? Humans will always remain cognitively superior – and therefore still be the leader in the factory of the future. Where it becomes too difficult or too dangerous for humans, the robot takes over. Example: the installation of hybrid batteries weighing more than 100 kilograms. For this, human and machine are already working "hand in hand" today. Human-robot cooperations (HRC) are therefore also opening up new opportunities for ergonomic and age-appropriate work.
Factory in the focus of research: ARENA2036
The changeover of the production at Mercedes-Benz is also being overseen scientifically: The "Active Research Environment for the Next Generation of Automobiles" (ARENA2036) project is taking a closer look at future trends in the industry at a research camp in Stuttgart. The focus is on highly modular production concepts which are supported by HRC (human robot cooperation) solutions. What is the significance of the date? The answer is quite simple: In 2036 the automobile will be 150 years old. A large celebration is guaranteed – including a retrospect at what has been achieved. The researchers have set this milestone as a point of reference and target.
Industrial robots are learning to save energy
Developing innovative technologies, tools, and algorithms for the sustainable robot technology of the future - this was the goal of the project AREUS (Automation and Robotics for European Sustainable Manufacturing). In the EU project AREUS, researchers and engineers have developed the components of an energy-efficient automobile production system of the future. Basically, the idea is to have a direct-current network supply robots with “green” electricity, some of which is subsequently recovered and temporarily stored.
Because the automotive industry uses more robots than any other sector, it is important to make them work energy-efficient. This is what AREUS is about. Four robots operate on a square area measuring nine meters on a side. Together, they create an entire production facility composed of direct-current systems. The cell is supplied with solar power from a photovoltaic system that was specifically installed for this project, and it can store surplus energy. In addition, the cell is connected to the external alternating-current grid. The cell works, and the robots are already producing components.
The AREUS project ended as scheduled in September 2016. The researchers and engineers had achieved what they set out to do: to take the first steps toward the creation of a more efficient production facility composed of direct-current systems. It is estimated that future technologies of this kind will be at least 10 to 20 percent more efficient than current ones. However, there is still a long way to go before that goal is achieved. That’s why a follow-up project, DC-INDUSTRIE, was launched in July 2016. It focuses on the creation of concepts for supplying energy to industrial facilities by means of an intelligently controlled direct-current network.
Digital sales – networked with the customers
One thing is already clear: The digital transformation does not end at the factory gate. Beyond production, Mercedes-Benz also takes advantages of the opportunities provided by networking to respond more individually to customer wishes, especially in distribution: there we count on the digitalisation of all channels, both in customer approach and in the functions of sales and service. With "Mercedes me", the central point of contact for all services on the Internet, customers experience the advantages of connectivity. The most recent innovations of the portal include the "Lifestyle Configurator". The principle: The customer specifies his or her preferences in terms of sport, food or living – and receives a proposal for a Mercedes model which he or she will certainly like. Customer service is also becoming smart.