Just when you think you have a good idea of the direction the industry is taking, something comes along which throws all of your cleverly-conceived ideas out of the window.

In this case it was a number of manufacturing plant visits conducted for this issue. Firstly, taking a look at motorcycle manufacturing revealed the different approaches adopted by two leading European OEMs. Both Ducati and BMW machines are aimed squarely at the premium end of the market; motorcycles that bristle with technology but also have a strong heritage. The compact architecture of a motorcycle makes the automation of its assembly challenging, but BMW has risen to this and deployed its vehicle making expertise to create a highly automated process at its Berlin motorcycle manufacturing plant. Let’s be clear; it is still a more manual process than building a car, but BMW have cleverly introduced automation in between the 'human' operations.

Obviously volume of production is an important factor in automating any process and Ducati’s output is lower than BMW's. But a visit to the Italian company’s Bologna plant revealed how they carefully balance a hand-built approach with the use of hi-tech tooling. Clever use of kitting assists with complex assembly, and electronically monitored and calibrated tools ensure quality and consistency.

Perhaps the biggest surprise came with a visit to Volvo’s Torslanda plant. The company is building a new bodyshop for the next generation of vehicles but the plan for the production process marks a clear departure from the existing BIW operation. Volvo are adopting a people-centric approach and designing a simplified process.

During this busy period of plant visits I also attended the AMS manufacturing conference in Shanghai. The recurring theme that emerged was that automation was seen as the key to lowering costs, increasing flexibility and improving quality, especially for the Chinese OEMs. This in a region where there is a large, cost-effective labour force.

The contrast in approaches was interesting, the balance between manual and automated operations being struck according to necessity or design. However, automation has been and will continue to be a huge asset to vehicle makers but its application in the future will change and become smarter as the model mix increases. Also the shift in focus at Volvo’s plant indicates that alternative processes are being considered and designed.