How will electric cars transform manufacturing?

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If the global automotive industry and its suppliers are to satisfy changing market demands for a complex blend of powertrain options over the coming years, they will need to adopt a more flexible manufacturing model.

That was the message delivered during a webinar about automotive industry trends, hosted by ABB Automotive.

For decades the global automotive manufacturing industry has been able to focus on producing gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles, reaping the efficiency benefits of such simplified production. But over the next decade it will have to adjust to market demand that includes a challenging array of powertrain options. The options will range from electric battery and hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles to traditional gas- and diesel-powered vehicles to hybrid vehicles which combine electric power with fossil fuels. Somehow all these vehicles will have to run on the same assembly line but production will have to be scaled to meet regional market demands which are anticipated to vary widely by 2035.

“As we get into the plug-in hybrids, they are really complicated with both the gas and the electric systems in the car. Just imagine it. Where do you fit all that in a vehicle? You’ve got to make those changes and it’s going to change more than the powertrain. It starts changing the body, it starts changing the structure of the vehicle,” said Patrick Matthews, global group manager, Assembly Auto, for ABB Automotive.

The anticipated changes in powertrain options will also have a huge impact on key automotive components, such as engines and transmissions, and the number and types of parts they will require. It’s a critical wake up call for parts suppliers that their business reality is about to undergo drastic change.

“As we transition from internal combustion engine vehicles to electric vehicles, you’re going to see the fuel tanks and the muffler systems going away. They’re going to turn into battery packs. The traditional internal combustion engine where you had pistons and connecting rods, cylinder heads, intake manifolds and spark plugs, those will turn into electric motors. Electric motors basically have two principal parts: rotors and stators, instead of the hundreds of parts in an internal combustion engine,” said Matthews.

It’s the same story with transmissions, the most complicated part of the fossil-fuelled powertrain.

“With electric vehicles transmissions are becoming just simple gear boxes. We are starting to see transmissions change from requiring 500-600 parts to requiring maybe 20-30 parts,” Matthews added.

Automotive manufacturers are faced with having to produce up to six separate powertrain types in the future until global markets settle on the best options.

“This brings complexity to the powertrain assembly…By having more complexity in the powertrain you also need a change in manufacturing production. The only way to move forward is through flexibility,” advised Joerg Reger, managing director, Auto OEM, for ABB Automotive.
If flexibility is key, then the critical question that follows is how much manufacturing flexibility will be required? What are the practical considerations in introducing a changing range of powertrain options, at scale, across a variety of global markets?

Matthews pointed out that for the globe’s manufacturers currently producing vehicles with internal combustion engines investing in completely new facilities to build their hybrids and electric vehicles is just not practical. They will have to handle production of these new powertrain options down the same assembly systems they are running internal combustion engine vehicles right now and into the foreseeable future.

“The OEMs and the Tier 1s will need more and more flexibility and this means having fully connected flows (on the plant floor) that are very easy to change and done in a way that recognizes the fact that we won’t know how the behaviour of end customers will evolve over time, therefore we need to embrace the fact that different volumes (of demand) will evolve for the different types of vehicles,” said Veronica Pascal Boe, managing director, ASTI Mobile Robotics Group.

The ability to scale production, up or down, for vehicles with a particular powertrain will be paramount, Matthews reinforced.

“It’s the ability to say I want to start with 20,000 units but in a year I want to use that same equipment and add to it and scale it to bring in up to 200,000 units,” Matthews said.

The panelists agreed that the flexible manufacturing strategy that takes shape on the plant floor must be a modular system that breaks tradition with linear product assembly lines, allowing for rapid production and scaling for a whole new level of customization. The critical enabler for this new approach will be automated guided vehicles serving as the connecting bridge between islands of fixed automation cells. This type of assembly system would be smart enough to bring vehicles together when they share common parts but automatically select them to be moved to different segments of the assembly system when specific powertrain options are required.

Reger said the key steps for scaling electric powertrain production will include:

– Investing in flexible automation: Cobots, automated guided vehicles and digital systems to increase manufacturing flexibility.
– Increasing high-speed connectivity: Faster connectivity leads to improved autonomous logistics and flexible robotics.
– Transitioning to cellular production: Redeployable, modular and individual cells can support more variation in products and supply.
– Using big data for predictive planning: Optimised production layouts through simulations and artificial intelligence can anticipate and manage production changes.
– Designing for automation partnerships: Automation opportunities may exist across processes and components.

“It’s a dramatic change, a big challenge,” he acknowledged. “We need partners who have dedicated know-how and can help us to solve the complexity that is coming.”

Pascal Boe added that the challenge to successfully implement such dramatic change will be multiplied for automotive suppliers.

“They will need to be much more flexible, much more modular and very responsive, knowing their OEMs are really in need to evolve towards this new flexibility,” she said, adding there is a particular need for automation among the Tier 1 suppliers.

ABB is a global technology company with a focus on connecting software to its electrification, robotics, automation and motion portfolios to push the boundaries of technology in driving performance.

ALSO WORTH READING: Electric vehicles to dominate vehicle production by 2035


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