Automakers and their sub-suppliers are overlooking a huge potential for automation that can help them overcome the labor and productivity challenges facing the industry.
We are used to seeing the automotive industry as a pioneer in robots and automation. In many ways, this is also the case: if you look at global statistics from the International Federation of Robots (IFR), 21% of all robot installations took place in this sector in 2020, making it the second largest customer base for automation. But, digging a little deeper, these statistics hide an industry still very dependent on manual labor.
As independent advisors on robots and automation, my colleagues and I often visit the factories of OEMs and their sub-suppliers to seek out new automation opportunities. For example, when they struggle to find enough human operators.
What we often see is that many tasks that probably should have been automated a long time ago are still left untouched by robots.
This shouldn’t be a problem in itself. However, in a world of labor shortages, heavily impacted by two years of pandemic, supply chain disruptions and geopolitical unrest, ensuring production continues at a competitive pace is essential. For this, automation plays a key role.
Automation is heavily concentrated in a few key areas
To understand the automation paradox of the automotive industry, one needs to take a closer look at the areas where robots are currently used, namely in the main automotive factories and at the many sub-suppliers of automotive components.
Most robot installations in the automotive industry are found in body production. This includes the conversion of sheet metal into a complete body which is then painted. There are often around 200 to 300 robots dedicated to this process alone at each car manufacturer. However, other assembly line processes, as well as the transport, picking and preparation of automotive parts, are only sporadically automated.
When it comes to contractors, they too have many options. They typically do much of the machining and welding of car components (body welding, which occurs at the car factory, being an exception). In these areas we also very often find opportunities for automation. There are currently many robotic solutions that address these processes, making their automation generally low-risk and accessible.
Just-in-time delivery is crucial
Assembling cars as they move down the assembly line relies on just-in-time delivery. Having the right automotive part available at the right time is crucial for assembly line workers.
Automotive factory intralogistics is an area of the automotive industry where we often see great potential for automation. Although the high variance makes it difficult to use automation solutions for kitting, there are other proven solutions for transporting automotive parts through the factory, Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR) being one. good example. Although not all types of transport are relevant to automate, it is often possible to automate 50-80% of those that are. Automating the intralogistics of an automotive plant can reduce the labor required by up to 80%.
Is automation still the solution?
Some automakers make the mistake of diving into the deep end when it comes to automation. The latest trend is to integrate collaborative robots into assembly lines in response to a growing demand for customization, which has valued the ability to quickly retool manufacturing processes.
Implementing new technologies in a strict just-in-time assembly line is very risky and requires meticulous planning and technological expertise. This is probably one of the main reasons why the automotive industry is lagging behind many other industries when it comes to automating their assembly processes. If a robotic solution does not perform robustly and reliably, it can critically impact the entire production chain, causing costly delays.
To ensure the success of such implementations, it is crucial to do extensive planning and detailed specifications in advance, as this will mitigate the risk of adjustments and surprises during solution integration or break-in. Likewise, it is strongly advised to automate manual processes with the lowest risk first, instead of trying to push a specific technology for the sake of technology.
In summary: Yes, the automotive industry already employs a large number of robots. Yet the industry has great potential for automation, especially in assembly, pre-assembly and intralogistics. To navigate successfully through today’s headwinds, automotive OEMs and their Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers need to start exploring these new opportunities.
Gain & Co are vendor-independent advisors helping companies succeed with robotics and automation. Gain & Co works with car manufacturers and other companies around the world to define their automation strategy, plan their investments, find robot solutions, supervise the implementation and evaluate their performance.
About the Author
Mikkel Viager is Senior Robotics and Automation Advisor at Gain & Co. He has helped many manufacturing companies around the world achieve their business goals through automation. He also holds a master’s degree in automation and robotics technology from the Technical University of Denmark.