German software and robotics company, Arculus, has developed a modular factory approach that the company said can boost productivity by 20-30% and reduce storage space by 20-25%. It can also reportedly help automotive companies protect themselves against the uncertainties of trade wars, the next pandemic or crisis, and the unpredictable demand for electric vehicles.
Arculus, based in Ingolstadt, Germany, uses its artificial intelligence-powered software paired with autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) to create a customized path through a factory for each car. According to CEO, Fabian Rusitschka, at full implementation, the approach could help a large OEM manufacturer to achieve cost savings of more than €150 million per year.
Robots play a key role in moving cars-in-production through the factory and to bring needed components to each assembly station, Rusitschka said. The system is designed for the more advanced AMRs but also works with the more basic automated guided vehicles (AGVs), he said.
“Unlike the more basic automated vehicles used by manufacturers for years to transport goods, our autonomous mobile robots bring capabilities of autonomous vehicles into the factory,” Rusitschka said. “They understand their environment and can navigate dynamically to any point on the production site using a map, ferrying components via the most efficient path possible, and eliminating the idle cycles (previously) necessary in line production.”
Modular system enables customization
Components go to only necessary assembly stations. On a traditional manufacturing line, an Audi A4 might pass through 160 stations, including some for features the vehicle would not have, Rusitschka said.
“Regardless of whether a customer wants certain features, a sunroof for example, all cars have to follow the same path at the same speed on the production line,” he said. “That means all cars have to pass through the sunroof assembly, causing idle times for workers and machines whenever a product without a sunroof goes through this station.”
Using Arculus’ Modular Production System, AMRs transport cars-in-production only to the assembly stations needed based on the features planned for each vehicle. AMRs also bring necessary components for those cars to each station, he said. Those stations are controlled by software that intelligently manages the logistics and assembly processes, Rusitschka said. In the case of the Audi A4, only the cars that get a sunroof will approach the sunroof module; the rest skip this station.
“Our smart warehouse management software ensures parts can be moved to each assembly station in perfect sync within the overall production process,” Rusitschka said. “Here parts come to the employee rather than the other way around–fast, without error or delay. This makes intermediate storage in high rack warehouses obsolete, and it reduces handling time between the warehouse and factory floor.”
Arculus uses an assembly priority graph (APC) to steer the cars through production, he said. The APC allows a product to be moved from module A to module B or to module C, with the decision being made at runtime based on the plan for the product and the utilization of the modules, he said.
“In a modular factory system, the A4 model with the sunroof and a model without a sunroof can simultaneously pass through different modular stations,” he said. “Perhaps one sunroof model also has a rear facing camera; then that too could dynamically choose the optimal path between stations so that each variant is produced in the least amount of time.”
In a modular production system, throughput time is not constant anymore, but dependent on the amount of work to be done, Rusitschka said. Since products visit only the modules they need, products with less options take less time than those with all options; whereas in a line all products take the time of the maximum configuration.
This setup also more easily enables affordable customization, bringing factories closer to the so-called ‘batch size one’, the concept of customizing products to meet individual specifications in very low numbers or even for only one product
“Once you divide a single production line into modular stations, the number of possible paths a component can take between these stations expands dramatically,” Rusitschka said. “The robot lines up with the product to be manufactured on the assembly station that is least busy. Stations can be skipped or easily added into any production process, which is vital for handling customization or uncertainty, without adding time, cost or complexity.”
The company builds its own robots to pair with its software but the software also can be integrated with robots made by other manufacturers, Rusitschka said.
“It’s crucial to bring the production and logistics flows together in the same system, and this can only be done through the combination of autonomous mobile robots and intelligent control software,” Rusitschka said. “The central control software is able to learn and organize the workflow to accommodate the factory’s needs at any given moment and send each vehicle along the most efficient path. This means that we can automate anything that is superfluous around the manned assembly stations, saving a lot of time and resources. And importantly, in a modular system, if something gets stuck in one module, the rest of the system is not affected.”
The setup increases productivity by 30% and saves 20% of the space needed for production, he said. If adopted at scale, modular production could reduce storage space by around 25%, he said.
That’s because behind most factories is a huge logistics operation that distributes hundreds of thousands of parts to different assembly stations. This not only requires smart processes, but also a lot of space.
Thanks to software that automates the way materials move, as well as the extra physical space surrounding each module, more materials can be stored alongside each module, only where they are needed, and only in the quantities that are needed, Rusitschka said. This reduces time spent sorting materials manually and transporting them from warehouses far away. The result is as if each station has its own so-called supermarket of parts, reducing the amount of time it takes to shop, as well as the overall size of the store.
Arculus started working with Audi in 2016, beginning with logistics before moving on to production.
Audi calls its system Supermarket 2.0 and Audi Fleet Manager. With this system, now used for volume production at Audi headquarters in Ingolstadt, Germany, the company has reversed the traditional production sequencing approach, the goods-to-person principle, where employees traveled large distances in the factory to pre-pick components in the correct sequence, Audi said in a release last year.
Now, AGVs take the necessary components to a fixed pick station in the correct sequence. At each station, a logistics employee prepares the components required on the production line. Audi Fleet Manager functions as the central control software. Since the racks take up less space, Audi will reduce storage space by around 25% in the future.
“With Supermarket 2.0 and Audi Fleet Manager we are marking an important milestone on the way to smart logistics of the future,” said Peter Kössler, board member for production and logistics at AUDI AG.
The software currently controls eight automated guided vehicles simultaneously, with this figure set to rise to 32 by the end of this year. Supermarket 2.0 makes the goods-to-person principle possible on a large scale for the first time.
In Foshan, China, Audi experts and employees from FAW-Volkswagen Automotive Company have set up a similar Supermarket 2.0, the company said. That system went live in early 2020 at the plant, which manufactures the Audi A3, Audi Q2L and Audi Q2L e-tron for the Chinese market as well as other vehicles of the Volkswagen Group. The solution was based on an AGV system from a local manufacturer and was customized to the specific requirements of Supermarket 2.0 and automobile production.
“Worldwide, the Audi experts benefit hugely from the experience their colleagues in Ingolstadt acquired with their pioneering work,” says Dieter Braun, head of supply chain for Audi AG.
Modular factory tech helps manufacturers become more agile
Modular factory technology can help manufacturers react more quickly to changes in supply and demand, Rusitschka said. The problem for manufacturers is that production lines are often planned years in advance and designed for a certain output, he said. That makes it nearly impossible to nimbly make adjustments when trade wars, a pandemic, or a natural disaster disrupt supply chains for materials or demand for finished products.
“In the US, 80% of manufacturers say covid-19 will have a financial impact on their business,” Rusitschka said. “In the European automotive industry, experts anticipate an overall drop in sales of almost 25% this year. Production lines and the associated investments are often planned years in advance, designed for a certain output, making simple adjustments virtually impossible. As long as factories are characterized by huge production lines, there is hardly any chance of reacting quickly to crises or opportunities.”
But with a full modular factory production system, the path of an autonomous robot can be changed during runtime and the set-up of assembly stations within a hall in a few days. This adaptability is becoming more and more important, because flexibility in production will be one of the decisive competitive advantages to keep production in high-wage countries like Germany and the UK in the long term.
“Modular production allows full flexibility to any demand, he said. “By making the whole process more efficient, we can help drive even more product customization and personalization in the future.”
The technology will also come in handy to meet the uncertain demand for electric vehicles, Rusitschka said.
“It’s clear that manufacturers will have to adapt and scale up their EV production – and fast,” he said. “In Europe, the German government recently committed billions of euros in funding for EV production adoption and infrastructure; and both the UK and France have set ambitious targets to transition away from traditional combustion engines by 2030 and 2040 respectively.”
EV adoption, however, is difficult to predict, he said. Estimates fluctuate between 162 million EVs by 2040 to 548 million, or about 32% of the world’s passenger vehicles and estimates can change every few weeks depending on a host of factors such as government subsidies, regulatory changes, consumer confidence and breakthroughs in technology, he said.
“This is why the flexibility offered by modular production to address this uncertainty is so critical,” he said.
Plans to expand
Arculus sees opportunities to expand beyond Germany and beyond the automotive sector.
“Starting in Germany made sense for us, because that’s where we started as engineers, and because auto manufacturing is so ingrained in the fabric of our region,” Rusitschka said.
“Applied more broadly, the application of modular production could save up to $90 billion in the automotive industry alone. The experience from the automotive industry can easily be transferred to other industries. By 2025 we want to work together globally with producers from a wide variety of industries — whether in computer hardware, in aviation or in entertainment electronics.”