The various strategies being used to support successful integration of new production lines, including how 3D simulation can certify cell and assembly line performance

Before the business of building a new line can begin, a period of development is required. This part of the line integration process is increasingly becoming a virtual operation, both in terms of connecting the dots with regards to physical cells and also ensuring the line elements speak the same language and that operators can understand it. An added complication is the modern preference of having the process planned while the product is still being designed, which given the time constraints faced by the industry, is more a critical consideration rather than an inconvenience.

Siemens offers integrator services

Siemens has a significant footprint in the automotive world. Its activities in industrial software, manufacturing automation and process automation make the company a mainstay of the industry. While it is most closely linked with German vehicle manufacturers, the company’s reach is very much universal – helped by the fact that customers generally want the same thing. “What we try to achieve, together with our partners in the automotive industry, is increased productivity, increased efficiency and better flexibility,” says Jürgen Nolde, Head of Automotive Vertical Markets Management.

Siemens does use the word ‘integrator’ to describe itself, though with strategic partnerships stretching from the commercial domain through to the technical and infrastructure spheres of operation, the company’s activities largely fit the same description. “Let us define the issue of plant integrator,” says Nolde. “This term is very difficult for us. Of course, we act as a partner to the automotive industry, but our automation products and systems are supplied to the automotive end customers via line builders – Dürr, Kuka, Comau, etc., – who get the contract from our end customers to build a bodyshop or an assembly shop or a paint shop. These customers then buy our automation components. If we talk about plant integration, the line builders in the automotive industry supply the production equipment.

“We act as a plant integrator when you talk about the manufacturing execution systems. We have the software of product development and collaborative product data management and with the Technomatix digital manufacturing tool, we are then able to make the connection between the product data of the vehicle and the production data of the assembly line.”

Beyond this, Siemens has a substantial line-building capability of its own. Nolde characterises this as a ‘boon’ to the company’s business software industry: “We provide solutions, like conveyor systems or parts of assembly lines to German end customers in order to have a base as a product and systems supplier. We want to have our own in-house solutions supplier so we know first-hand how to develop our automation concepts and our software systems. Our target as a supplier for automation products and systems in the automotive sector is to provide our software and components to any automotive manufacturer anywhere in the world. We would, however, not be in the market to set up a final assembly line at Toyota in Japan because we will never be able to get a profitable solution out of such a concept.

Toyota would turn to a Japanese line builder to provide their solutions. Our target with Toyota would be to provide them with modern automation solutions, just as it is to equip Tata Motors with modern automation solutions and partner Fiat in the development of a new automation concept, both of which we are doing at the moment.”

One of Siemens’ fundamental strategies to enhancing the plant integration process is to help vehicle manufacturers move away from the series approach to product and process design and do more work in parallel. A practical example of the technology at work would be the interface between product design and assembly engineering. The industry has moved away from different groups operating in a vacuum, but managing the process in a way that manufacturing engineering can influence product design is still in its infancy. Siemens’ suite of CAD, collaborative PDM and digital manufacturing solutions are intended to make that discussion easier to manage. The production planner has access to design data, can see areas of concern and can send a screenshot to the data backbone. The data backbone logs what image was captured, knows which designer was responsible for the part and can request the designer make a change, allowing the design process to go on in full view of production engineering. The opposite is also true in that using the full bandwidth of the system, product designers can see the capabilities of the production process.

Daimler, long-time customer of Siemens, uses the company’s PDM system and will shortly start using Siemens’ NX CAD software as a global standard across its passenger car and truck development programmes. The CAD program will complete Daimler’s implementation of Siemens’ ‘Teamcentre’ data management backbone. Every Daimler design centre will share a single worldwide data pool, which in turn will greatly increase the carmaker’s ability to use parallel processes in development, design, production planning and across the manufacturing arena.

One of Siemens’ underlying tenets is to develop strategic partnerships, like that which it enjoys with Daimler. “For us, strategic partnerships with key players in the automotive industry are very important,” explains Nolde. “On one hand, partnerships with our end customers allow us to test out and apply new software and hardware components in pilot projects but also, it allows us to have a role in the development of automation application standards. Major automotive manufacturers decide on the automation concepts they will use years before a production line is set up. They do the benchmark concepts and decide who has the most suitable automation. We assist these end customers in developing their automation application standards and we are also part of the AIDA Group (the German automotive collective) which defines the standards not only for ProfiNet, but also for CAD layouts and software unification. Here, we have to be a partner.

“For the line builders, we also have to build up partnerships because we want the key line builders to use Siemens when there is no specific requirement from end customers. Smaller automotive manufacturers do not see the development of the application standard as their key competence and therefore we develop concepts with the line builders to supply application software based on our TIA and PL software.”

One of Siemens’ latest software tools is the Totally Integrated Automation (TIA) portal. While the concept has been a Siemens staple since the 1990s, TIA originally evolved to unite disparate factory automation systems at a time when PLCs, industrial PCs, human-machine interfaces, etc., did not necessarily communicate with each other. It defined common interfaces and controls for a wide variety of devices and established an overall product architecture into which different factory components could fit and be combined with each other.

Since TIA came into common usage, all new Siemens automation components and software applications have been developed to fit into the larger TIA world, spanning all areas and functions of a given production line. The benefit for the line owner is that they have access to data and can control the production process from a single point.

The system still has multiple applications and development tools, while each system has its own user interface, its own functions and its own database. The TIA portal moves on from that, providing the user with one framework and a common user interface from which different applications can be accessed – similar, though on a magnified scale, to a suite of desktop software. Using a common database, one change in the system is applied automatically to all connected applications which, according to Siemens, will vastly increase the process speed of line building projects and improve the line integration process.

“It’s the next step and will bring together all of the applications,” says Nolde. “For example, if you’re engineering a HMI system and you set a variable, then this variable can be dragged and dropped – just as you would with any other application – into the PLC programming. We want to have one engineering tool for motion control, PLC, HMI and, of course, industrial software: this is the TIA portal.”

3D modeling

Jürgen Nolde goes on to explain Siemens’ view with regards to 3D line modeling: “When we interact with our automotive customers, I’d say 99% of the new production lines are in some way first created digitally. Customers such as VW plan to have a virtual start of production to check whether the quality, the output and the functionality of the production line will be achieved with the physical one. In the past this has been a ‘checkpoint’, but its importance has grown and today it’s a standard to have a virtual production line. It’s gone from being a nice-to-have process to an essential element for the big automotive customers.

“Looking at how new production lines are designed and produced, a high percentage of the cost is engineering, commissioning, etc. The phase in which the production line is installed, before entering full operation, is a critical and cost-intensive time. A digital production line on which you can try out all the key functionality of the line in a virtual model will ultimately save time on the shopfloor and ensure you have a faster ramp-up.”

While producing a 3D simulation has become a default tool for almost all line development projects, it can present a new challenge when moving into new regions. According to Thomas Bramer, Purchasing Director for global brake systems and Asia-Pacific suspension at BWI Group, over his five years in Shanghai, he has dealt with fabricators with all levels of experience. “You have fabricators that are very experienced and have global familiarity and then you have local fabricators who have really only focussed on the China market. There is a big variety of performance that comes from those two different types of suppliers. We want to work with local suppliers: that helps us in terms of communications, it helps us in terms of logistics, it helps us in terms of cost – not only cost from the equipment standpoint but also cost for travelling and the oversight function of helping our suppliers complete what they are committed to do. But not all suppliers have the type of information and the type of equipment that we need. Specifically, I’m talking about 3D modelling of assembly equipment. Some of our global fabricators have that 3D modelling capability, but some of the local, low-cost suppliers in China don’t have that capability and it makes it very difficult for us to work our process without that capability. “Basically, we want to see it first. That’s pretty much demanded by our bill of design and bill of process. As a global company we have resources in North America, resources in Europe and obviously resources in Asia-Pacific.

So as we are designing equipment, working with suppliers on the fabrication side of things, we want to have a video conference link and be able to review the designs of the assembly equipment. Three-dimensional modelling allows everyone to see that without having to be physically there looking at it. That makes it an extremely important part of our process.”

Another Siemens tool is called systematic layout process, or SLP. “[SLP] is designed to optimise the placement of equipment on our shopfloor,” says Ricardo Pastor, Quality Director for electric power steering and driveline supplier Nexteer. “This is based on the needs we may have for individual cells. We are looking at what the cells need to be close to, if two cells need to be close to each other, what should be close to the tool shop, what needs to be close to the shipping area. This tool allows us, in a systematic fashion, to analyse that. It allows us to implement a lean process and most importantly, it’s a way of introducing the product, the process and understanding the material flow and the communication that’s required between individual manufacturing cells to the new people that we’re going to have in the manufacturing facility. It isn’t all done in 3D, it’s assisted by spreadsheets and it is a very interactive team approach. It’s a way of bringing in the know how and teaching it, as well as developing an optimum and very lean layout.

“Lean is very important to us, not just from an equipment perspective but also from the manufacturing building itself. We pride ourselves on making our manufacturing facilities lean and flexible to accommodate equipment changes. Programmes have a finite life. One programme is exiting and another is either using some of that equipment or some of that floorspace. So we design our facilities so they are easily changed over from one configuration to another.

“When we were looking at our joint venture in China we looked at the entire growth of our plant over the ten year period so that we would design the facility and place the equipment in such a way as to anticipate the growth and expansion and minimise the impact of production as we increased capacity or brought new business to the facility.”