Suppliers of automation technology have to work closely with carmakers to establish the best platform strategy. AMS talks to Thomas Schott at Siemens Automation and Drives about the latest concepts bringing productivity benefits to the business

The automotive industry has always been a pioneer in automation and a driver of innovation, but it’s important to recognise why the automotive sector is so important for automation vendors.

The automotive market can be subdivided into three major economic areas – the EU 15, the US and Canada, and Japan – with an estimated population of roughly 827 million and an average vehicle density of 577 per 1,000. Other countries include the emerging markets of Russia, China and India, but at 152 per 1,000 in Russia, seven in India and five in China, their vehicle density is still comparatively low.

A clear distinction needs to be made between these 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 product.

More models in less time
The model policies of two German manufacturers are cases in point. Since 1989, BMW has launched a new model every other year, while Mercedes has introduced two new models every three years. Model numbers continue to rise as do model variants. This means more niche products, smaller batches being produced on 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 the former DaimlerChrysler, from 33.86 hours to 25.17 hours, and from 31.98 hours to 23.09 hours at GM.

Prompted by cost considerations and the concentration of established brands among increasingly few 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, 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 doors, continue to be manufactured off the production line and are only added at the end of the final assembly process.

Green car challenge
Another important trend applies to all car manufacturers – the ‘green car’ with which manufacturers hope to meet the environmental challenges of the future. There are several possible approaches to meeting future requirements, ranging from more lightweight and smaller passenger vehicles to new diesel and hybrid engines; even alternative drive concepts. New drive technologies such as hybrids or diesel engines will be applied on a much wider scale in the future; this is both for environmental reasons and because of rapidly increasing fuel costs.

The green car will bring a technology push to the automotive industry from which leading Tier One and technology suppliers stand to benefit. The requirements that the automotive industry places on production are easily illustrated in Daimler’s goal: “Do more with less”. Doing more means safeguarding technological leadership in the field of automation and control, increasing the capacity, flexibility and safety of production facilities and improving 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 goal for any future car manufacturer is to reduce costs in all phases of the product lifecycle, starting with design and including engineering, start up and production; the aim is to reduce time and costs by 10 to 15 per cent. These are the criterea by which planning departments in the automotive industry are measured.

Standards and responsibility
How can this time and cost reduction be achieved? The answer, according to Thomas Schott, Vice President, Factory Automation, Siemens Automation and Drives (A&D), Nuremberg, is standardisation of all development phases of a production line and clear project responsibilities. “The automotive industry expects its automation suppliers to continuously support their planning teams with engineering advice,” Schott explains. “This applies to all production facilities worldwide. They need to set up a structure for each project and support the line builders throughout it, delivering visible productivity gains on all production lines and in all phases of production. They also need to 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 performances, a major trend is toward developing safety using soft solutions, in particular the simplification of the human interface,” says Pascal Milliot, General Manager, Body Assembly Engineering Department, Renault. “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.”

Competence centre
Schott is in charge of the Siemens A&D Automotive Competence Centre, established in 1996 with a view to providing qualified advice to its customers and to receiving direct feedback on its own developments. The centre supports the company’s 19 corporate account managers who look after all leading car manufacturers worldwide, providing both technical and sales support. “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,” Schott continues. “Based on TIA [totally integrated automation] and the full product and system range of Siemens A&D, 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 A&D provides the automotive industry with a future-oriented automation strategy, whilst also driving such technologies as the ‘digital factory’. “The automotive industry acts as a trendsetter, 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 that are based on existing production plants. For a typical work cell in body making, we have been developing a state-of-theart automation concept that demonstrates how capital expenditure and lifecycle 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.”

Simple safety system
Profinet has integrated safety systems in the form of Profisafe, now boasting a combination of wireless and open communications via IWLAN. Whilst 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. Up to 35 per cent of capital expenditure can be saved for a work cell because the 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. In the old days, diagnosis was based on time- and labourconsumingchecks 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, ie costoptimised, maintenance.

“This is exactly what the Simatic Maintenance Station does,” Schott explains. “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. As such, the maintenance station 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, enabling more efficient preventive maintenance. 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.

Advantages at Audi
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 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,” Schott says.

“With 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 knowhow 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 re-used 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,” Schott adds. “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."