Innovation hotbed

How the automotive sector is pushing the automation and control envelope.

Industrial control has always been a hotbed for innovation within the control sector. From the introduction of intelligent devices, through various guises of distributed architecture, communication protocols and, more recently, software development, it has continued to push the boundaries.

But among the control sphere there is one sector that stands head and shoulders above the rest for driving change, and that is the automotive sector. The automotive industry has always been a pioneer in automation and a driver of innovations. On the flip side it is important to recognise why automotive is so important for automation vendors.

The automotive market can be subdivided into three major economic areas - the EU 15, the United States, Canada, and Japan - with a population in total of roughly 827 million and an average vehicle density of 577 per 1,000 inhabitants - and other countries including the most interesting emerging markets of Russia, China and India. At 152 in Russia, over seven in India and five in China, their vehicle density is still low.

A clear distinction must be made between the different automotive markets. In the big three economic areas, the market will grow more through innovation and added value per vehicle, while the emerging markets are expected to expand through the number of vehicles sold, with the $5,000 car being the target figure.

The model policies of two German manufacturers are two cases in point: since 1989 BMW has launched a new model every other year and Mercedes two new models every three years. And the large number of models continues to grow.

The future's niche

In the future, the number of model variants will continue to rise, which means more niche products, smaller batches being produced in each production line and greater flexibility required in each production plant.

This is reflected in general production trends: production times per vehicle are getting ever shorter. The number of hours worked per car at assembly lines in US factories fell significantly between 1998 and 2004, in the case of Daimler-Chrysler from 33.86 hours to 25.17 hours, and from 31.98 hours to 23.09 hours at GM.

Prompted by high cost pressure and the concentration of established brands among diminishing vendors, manufacturers are increasingly forced to rely on platform strategies in their global production concepts. Car manufacturers continue to restrict their activities to their own core competences and outsource other processes, such as having components or modules manufactured by third parties. Contracts for complete interior compartments are placed with sub-suppliers, and there is even talk of applying a film or foil to the car body rather than painting it in the paintshop. Complete modules, such as door modules, continue to be manufactured off the production line and are only assembled at the end of the final assembly process.

Another important trend applies to all car manufacturers alike - the 'green car' that demonstrates how manufacturers expect to meet the environmental challenges of
the future. There are several approaches to meeting future requirements, ranging from more lightweight and smaller passenger vehicles via new diesel and hybrid engines all the way to alternative drive concepts. New drive technologies such as hybrid or diesel engines will be applied on a much wider scale in the future; this is both for environmental reasons and because of ever-increasing fuel costs.

Technology push

The 'green car' will bring a technology push to the automotive industry from which leading technology suppliers and first-tier suppliers stand to benefit. The requirements that the automotive industry places on production are easily illustrated in Daimler's goal: 'Do more with less'.

'Do more' means to safeguard technological leadership in the field of automation and control, to increase the capacity, flexibility and safety of production facilities and to improve the quality of products by applying the latest processes and technologies. 'With less' means less capital expenditure and operating cost, as well as reduced complexity.

In general, the overarching goal for any future car manufacturer is to bring down life cycle costs in all phases of the life cycle, starting with the design phase and including engineering, start-up and production; the aim is to reduce time and costs by 10 to 15 per cent. This is what planning departments in the automotive industry are judged by.

How can this time and cost reduction be achieved? The answer is standardisation of all development phases of a production line and clear project responsibilities.

Continuous support

The automotive industry expects its automation suppliers to continuously support their planning teams with engineering advice, for all production facilities worldwide, set up a project structure for each project and to support the line builders throughout the project, deliver visible productivity gains on all production lines and in all phases of production, be involved in the simultaneous engineering process and the definition of engineering standards, and to supply state-of-the-art technology which is optimised for each market and each application.

"In automation, in addition to improving the amelioration of performances, the major trend is developing safety using soft solutions, and in particular the simplification of the human interface, (process and safety management to reduce wiring and optimise network use)," Pascal Milliot, general manager, Body Assembly Engineering Department, Renault, says.

"Just as in home and office automations, the more complex a controller is, the easier its use. New automation architectures make it possible to re-use software modules in accordance with the building blocks of functions and standard physical components. Moreover, in this field, the information transmission from the controllers continues to be developed. They offer diagnostic tools, to improve maintenance, and thus availability and reliability."

Together with the car manufacturers and plant suppliers, new automation concepts are being optimised for productivity, piloted, tested and followed through to mass production, from the press all the way to the final assembly. Based on TIA (Totally Integrated Automation) and the full product and system range of Siemens, this competence centre is perfectly capable of developing comprehensive solutions for the body shop and other production areas in collaboration with its partners. It is part of a global competence network comprising over 250 staff in total. Thus Siemens provides the auto--motive industry with a future-oriented automation strategy, while also driving such technologies as the 'digital factory'.

The automotive industry acts as a trend setter, pushing new automation concepts, new control technologies and communications. At a very early stage we translate these into TIA which we make available to other manufacturing industries.

The automotive industry asks for more than the delivery of products. Together with the car manufacturers we work out technical concepts which are based on existing production plants. For a typical work cell in body making we have been developing a state-of-the-art automation concept which demonstrates how capital expenditure and life cycle costs can be reduced.

Such a concept naturally integrates safety systems based on Profinet. The entire production plant is networked including safe and non-safe applications. Our new panel PCs enable an ergonomic plant operation and rapid trouble shooting via integrated diagnostic mechanisms. Wireless technology is also applied in body making.

A step further

Profinet has taken a further step forward by integrating safety systems in the form of Profisafe, now boasting a combination of wireless and open communications via IWLAN in an unprecedented innovation push. While it was previously impossible to replace trailing cables or slip rings because of the use of safety systems, Profinet can now save substantial costs thanks to its Profisafe and IWLAN technologies. Their full integration into the entire system has also made complex safety systems considerably simpler and more efficient to implement.

Based on this automation concept, up to 35 per cent of capital expenditure can be saved for a work cell. This is because the safety system has been fully integrated (no switching cabinet), all plants appear in an efficient layout, and savings have been made in engineering.

This opens entirely new possibilities in maintenance. Maintenance has changed completely over the years: in the old days, diagnosis was based on time- and labour-consuming checks of individual LEDs on automation components. Today there are many more ways to pick up maintenance-related data in the field, to process this data in a central place, to visualise this data and ideally, use it directly to manage status-oriented and preventive, i.e. cost-optimised, maintenance.

This is exactly what the Simatic Maintenance Station does. This advanced optional package operates in conjunction with our Simatic WinCC process visualisation system. Without any great engineering input, it helps channel the ever greater flood of information and manage it within an efficient and reasonably priced maintenance system. The package can be applied either on a Station together with a WinCC application or on a separate PC.

In engineering, components are identified electronically, which means that the system does not require configuration, thus eliminating any risk of configuration error. Automated operation saves time and precludes transmission errors. Access to relevant data resources is also possible via established WinCC options such as server-client solutions. The Maintenance Station thus provides the user with a continuous overview of all pending maintenance jobs and their current status. The program does not respond only after a fault has occurred, as is the case in classical corrective maintenance; rather it reacts to a range of events stored in the system, which helps prevent faults before they occur. It thus enables preventive maintenance, which is more efficient. The user is notified in good time and schedules the required personnel, tools and spare parts in optimum fashion. This minimises maintenance-related downtime; or, in other words, maximises availability and productivity.

Robotic cells

Audi's extra-small-scale new R8 roadster production in Neckarsulm, using fully automated robotic work cells, relies on Siemens control systems. Thanks to Profinet with integrated safety and wireless communications (wireless LAN), the car manufacturer achieves a high degree of integration and consistency in communications which translates into cost advantages in respect of commissioning, maintenance, diagnosis, operations and spare parts inventories.

Thanks to Profinet and integrated safety and wireless communications, Audi makes substantial savings in terms of maintenance expenses because data is transmitted without causing any wear in moving parts. The reduced hardware diversity optimises the spare parts inventory. Audi benefits from a shorter time-to-market through earlier production start-up. Data integration is also reflected in further cost advantages related to the operation and diagnosis of production facilities.

Ideal production lifecycle management requires a smooth and seamless transfer of data and knowledge from the digital to the real factory. And, although hardware still plays a major role in this context, the share of software continues to grow in this sector.

The textbook example is the Simatic Automation Designer. Simatic Automation Designer picks up and largely automates the generation of program codes for controls and operator panels from plant descriptions and flow charts. It creates a uniform view of configuration data, which is complemented by expert automation know-how and can be used directly for the configuration of PLC programs, for instance.

Thus, based on planning and design data, the plant gradually becomes reality in the computer. In addition, customisable standard components are created which can be reused in subsequent projects, thereby further reducing the time-to-market. Error risks and engineering expenditure are significantly reduced, which also helps to accelerate plant availability and new product launches.

Besides automation, information technology is becoming increasingly important. Together with the automotive industry, we are currently working on such tasks as production sequencing and monitoring based on Simatic IT. In collaboration with the Siemens SIS group, we also provide solutions for vehicle configurations and production planning at the enterprise resource level.

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