The 'smart factory' is the centrepiece of the digitalisation of the entire company. In the smart factory, the products, machines and the entire environment are networked with each other and connected to the internet. Integration of the real world into a functional, digital world enables a so-called "digital twin" to be created, which allows the real-time representation of processes, systems and entire production shops.
"Digitalisation enables us to make our products more individual, and production more efficient and flexible. The challenge is to plan for the long term while remaining able to respond rapidly to customer wishes and market fluctuations," explains Markus Schäfer, Member of the Divisional Board Mercedes-Benz Cars, Manufacturing and Supply Chain Management, Daimler AG.
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."
Mercedes-Benz is already able now to digitally simulate the production process from the press plant to final assembly, and therefore to master the complexity of modern automobiles and their manufacture: for assembly alone, around 4000 individual processes are examined for technical feasibility long before series production commences.
Stage by stage, the smart factory concept is being realised in the global production network of Mercedes-Benz. The first two stages have already been clearly defined and substantially achieved:
- Mercedes-Benz now has global component standards, a standardised systems architecture and standardised automation, regulation and control technology.
- Wherever investments are made, globally standardised technology modules are used in robotics and production processes.
The next steps on the way to the production of the future are globally applicable equipment modules suited to product modules, and standardised working strategies. Before the end of the decade, this specific vision of the smart factory will come together in the form of a reference factory designed completely for the methods and processes described above.
Many processes that sounded like science fiction just a short time ago are already or will soon be in use in production:
- 3D printing/Additive Manufacturing: 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)
- Machine learning/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
- Production Data Cloud/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.
Scientific backup on the way to the digital factory is provided by the ARENA 2036 project (Active Research Environment for the Next Generation of Automobiles): This is a research campus where Daimler conducts research into the future of production and lightweight design with partners from the scientific community and industry. The project will continue to the year 2036, when the automobile celebrates its 150th birthday.