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Increases in the number of different powertrains mean car manufacturers must adapt to complexity

Increases in the number of different powertrains mean car manufacturers must adapt to complexity

ABB-sponsored report highlights the challenges faced by car manufacturers as the transition to electrified vehicles gathers pace, bringing with it the need to manage huge complexity in assembly and supply chains.

According to Flexing for the Future, a 2035 Global Powertrain Forecast Report sponsored by ABB Robotics and authored by the automotive intelligence unit of Ultima Media, car manufacturers must adopt a more flexible and collaborative approach to their production and logistics infrastructure if they are to maintain profitability and quality into the next decade.

Faced with ambitious targets for mitigating climate change together with huge regional variations in regulations and consumer attitudes, manufacturers are responding by developing platforms and production facilities that accommodate a complex mix of powertrains, from petrol and diesel to hybrid and battery-electric, as well as emerging technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells.

This variability introduces a new level of complexity that extends far beyond the factory walls and throughout the global logistics and supply chains. With conventional ICE powertrains sharing little with their EV successors, the sheer variety of components and processes that must be supported can quickly become unmanageable. Added to which, the speed with which market conditions, government incentives, legislation, and even the underlying technology itself can change means that manufacturers must seek to engineer even greater flexibility into their production facilities if they are to respond to this uncertainty.

The report, released today, suggests manufacturers must increasingly turn to digitalisation and automation to deliver the flexibility required to manage this variety.

“By unravelling traditional long-line production architectures and deploying dedicated modular cells, manufacturers gain the ability to modify or even replace individual cells without incurring costly production interruptions,” says Joerg Reger, Managing Director of ABB Robotics’ automotive business. “These zero-loss production changes allow OEMs to start small and scale up key parts of the assembly process by adding or redeploying cells as demands change. By engineering flexibility into the process, we create the means to not just manage this rising complexity, but to turn it into an opportunity.”

One of the most significant technologies in supporting this flexibility is the switch to more autonomous logistics and material handling in plants, the report suggests, with OEMs increasingly relying on Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) to move materials flexibly.

By creating a ‘digital twin’ of the facility, changes can be examined and optimised beforehand, and once a cell’s design has been perfected in the virtual space, it can be quickly rolled-out as a fully validated unit anywhere in the world. Cellular manufacturing also allows robots to be redeployed or moved to areas of high demand with a “lift and shift” process, meaning an asset can extend its life beyond its original purpose.

Key to the success of these initiatives is the need for closer collaboration between a manufacturer and their automation partner. The report outlines that the challenge for many OEMs and Tier-1 suppliers is that their expertise tends to be concentrated in particular product technologies and manufacturing processes. The best way, therefore, to develop solutions quickly is through collaboration with a suitable external partner. Combining the process expertise of the supplier with the automation expertise of an outside company can enable the co-creation of automation solutions in which products are not only ‘designed for manufacture’ but ‘designed for automation’.

That can lead to automation penetrating further into the production process, as evidenced by the growth in robotics use in final trim and assembly, or new technologies such as ABB’s PixelPaint that remove the need for labour-intensive processes that can slow down production.

However, as the report notes, achieving flexible automation is not just a matter of acquiring robots; it requires a completely fresh view of how to maximise manufacturing efficiency in an uncertain and rapidly changing environment.

The report is available to download here.

ABB (ABBN: SIX Swiss Ex) is a leading global technology company that energizes the transformation of society and industry to achieve a more productive, sustainable future. By connecting software to its electrification, robotics, automation and motion portfolio, ABB pushes the boundaries of technology to drive performance to new levels. With a history of excellence stretching back more than 130 years, ABB’s success is driven by about 105,000 talented employees in over 100 countries.

ABB Robotics & Discrete Automation is a pioneer in robotics, machine automation and digital services, providing innovative solutions for a diverse range of industries, from automotive to electronics to logistics. As one of the world’s leading robotics and machine automation suppliers, we have shipped over 500,000 robot solutions. We help our customers of all sizes to increase productivity, flexibility and simplicity and to improve output quality. We support their transition towards the connected and collaborative factory of the future. ABB Robotics & Discrete Automation employs more than 10,000 people at over 100 locations in more than 53 countries.

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