For many outside the automotive industry, vehicle manufacturing is viewed as a wholly automated process – and they can be forgiven for thinking this, because the vast majority of images depict lines of robots building cars. Indeed, I receive so much information on automation and control systems that it’s easy to forget the human element involved; but people on the line are still a vitally important factor in raising quality and efficiency standards. While there have been some impressive advances in automation, a people-centric focus runs right through the entire scope of vehicle-makers from niche, low-volume to mass-market, high-volume producers.
An excellent example is Bentley, featured in the training article in our January-February issue. This relatively low-volume but very high-end OEM has been growing and developing its in-house training programmes to ensure continuity of essential skills. What makes Bentley a case in point is that although the company has undoubtedly embraced modern technology and processes in the manufacture of its cars, it has also needed to guarantee the pool of skills essential to certain bespoke operations. Here it is about combining the automated and the artisan, the latter requiring skills that have been in diminishing supply in recent years.
Jaguar Land Rover is another premium manufacturer that has undoubtedly faced a skills shortage as demand for its products grows. Lean years and the resulting reduced volumes ultimately rob OEMs of the skilled workforce they spent decades building. In developing economies which have a low-cost workforce, the case for more automation is not as strong, but leaving aside the financial argument, the development of workers' skills is just as vital in these regions as anywhere else. Downtime is expensive and employee safety and job satisfaction are hugely important.
Training addresses all of these factors. As well as avoiding accidents, improving skills creates a stronger sense of responsibility and encourages operatives to take greater ownership of their work; this ultimately improves efficiency, productivity and quality.
This is becoming increasingly important as vehicle-makers move production operations into new regions (see, for example, Renault and BMW), and introduce full manufacturing to existing locations (previously CKD or SKD). For OEMs that have developed increasingly sophisticated, automated production operations in their home markets, the challenge comes in establishing plants where there will have to be higher levels of manual operations; add to this the roll-out of global platforms and processes, and the challenge becomes greater. In these instances, effective training and people power are key to success.