How automated is the automotive industry?
According to the International Federation of Robots (IFR), the automotive industry was the largest user of robots worldwide in 2020. In fact, 28% of all robot installations happen in the automotive sector. However, is the high volume of robots being reported giving a distorted impression of how automated the industry is?
In order to address this question, we must consider the automotive industry as a being made up of two main components: the main car factory, and the under forest of sub-suppliers of car components.
Machining and welding are highly automated processes
Machining and welding are typically done by the sub-suppliers of car components, with the welding of the car body, which happens at the car factory, being an exception. There are currently many solutions catering to these processes, making automating them generally low-risk and accessible.
The majority of robot installations in the automotive industry are, in fact, found in the car body production, which includes converting metal sheets into a full car body that is then painted. There are often around 200 to 300 robots dedicated to this process alone at every car manufacturer. The remaining processes on the assembly line, as well as the transport, picking and preparing of car parts, are only sporadically automated.
Just-in-time delivery is crucial
The assembly of cars while they move through the assembly line relies on just-in-time delivery. It is crucial for assembly line workers to have the exact right car part available at the exact right time.
The intralogistics of the car factory is an area within the automotive industry where we often see high potential for automation. Though high variance makes using automation solutions for kitting difficult, there are other proven solutions for transporting car parts across the factory floor, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) being a good example of this. Though not all transport types may be relevant to automate, it is often possible to automate 50-80% the ones that are. Automating the intralogistics of a car factory can reduce the manpower needed for this type of manual process by up to 80%.
Is automating always the solution?
Some car manufacturers make the mistake of diving into the deep end when it comes to automation. The latest trend is incorporating collaborative robots into assembly lines in answer to an increase in demand for customization, which has put higher value on the ability to retool manufacturing processes quickly.
The implementation of novel technologies in a strict just-in-time assembly line is highly risky and requires meticulous planning and technological expertise. This is likely one of the main reasons that the automotive industry is lagging behind many other industries when it comes to automating their assembly processes. If a robotic solution is not functioning robustly and reliably, it can have a critical impact on the entire production line, causing expensive delays. To ensure the success of such implementations, it is crucial to do significant planning and detailed specifications up front, as this will mitigate the risk of adjustments and surprises during the integration or run-in of the solution. Similarly, it is highly advisable to automate the manual processes with the lowest risk first, instead of trying to push in a specific technology for the sake of the technology.
Does a high number of robots equate to how automated an industry is?
As already mentioned, the welding and painting of the car body are processes that have been widely automated, with numerous dedicated automation solutions available in the market. The high number of robots used in these processes has in some ways skewed statistics, with the automotive industry being considered highly automated despite many of its manufacturing processes not being so. Intralogistics and assembly at car factories, for example, still heavily relies on manual labour.
Things are rapidly changing, however, with a large part of the automotive industry looking to automate these logistic processes as a way of confronting the labour shortages brought about by the Covid-pandemic, Brexit, and rising supply chain costs. In the future, we will see a similar trend within assembly, which involves a different type of automation for which novel technology is currently being explored and developed.
“The automotive industry has a huge automation potential. We need more automation for assembly, pre-assembly and intralogistics deployed in the automotive sector”
Mikkel Viager, Senior Robot and Automation Advisor at Gain & Co