By Fred Thomas
In the automotive business, we’ve been hearing about the Factory of the Future for years now. It’s easy to dismiss the whole idea as just one more round of hype and promises. But not too long ago people were saying the same thing about the Internet, and we know how that worked out!
I think we’re in a similar situation with the automotive Factory of the Future. It’s happening now, far sooner than many expect. Here are two reasons why this is taking off.
First Reason: Serious companies are investing in it
There’s a new video by PSI Peugeot Citroen worth watching on YouTube (see below). It presents a vision for automotive manufacturing where customers just tap their custom car order into a smart device, and then a highly automated end-to-end system produces the car on the production line and delivers it to the buyer.
Here are a few of the highlights:
- A shop floor manufacturing engineer scans the physical item while working virtually with a design engineer to refine the design—and then implements the change on the fly, right on the production line.
- Robots and people are highly mobile, moving around the plant floor to implement on-the-fly changes; the plant floor itself is digital and dynamic
- Supply chains and resources are tightly synchronized and adjusted as needed with each custom order, maintaining Lean practices in a custom production environment
What’s significant about this video is that PSI Peugeot Citroen is not just dreaming up some possible future. They’re working on this now, building a digital production enterprise piece by piece. They’re not the only ones, either. They expect to get there by 2030, but each interim advance will bring them a step closer. When major companies are investing in this kind of initiative, it’s time to take it seriously.
Second Reason: The technology infrastructure
The Factory of the Future requires an underlying digital infrastructure, so every part of the extended production chain can communicate and interact with a high degree of synchronization.
Over time, little by little, this digital transformation has been taking place across the automotive industry. Design engineers use CAD modeling to build virtual prototypes. Manufacturing Engineers use Simulation tools to validate process integrity on the virtual shop floor. Planners use Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and logistics systems to organize resources. Robots are now a standard part of the production floor. Increasingly, companies are using enterprise Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) to standardize processes, direct workers, and synchronize supply chains.
On the customer side, technology is empowering a new generation of consumers who expect everything to be personalized and immediately available through an app.
It remains for manufacturers like PSI Peugeot Citroen to tie these capabilities together in a single enterprise system that can operate dynamically in real time. Integration on this scale is still a huge task, and a few years away, but it has started. There are manufacturers today who are using collaborative design and manufacturing systems, Digital Twins, Just-in-Time supply chain management, and the other elements of the Factory of the Future. It’s coming as sure as next year’s bigger (or smaller) smartphone.
An end-to-end, order-of-one, connected and transparent vehicle order, build and deliver experience has been the automotive Holy Grail since the late 1990’s. But, the idea was far ahead of the technology. It appears that’s no longer true. Now, finally, there’s reason to believe the automotive Factory of the Future might be just around the corner.
About the Author:
Fred Thomas is the Industry Director for discrete manufacturing at APRISO – Dassault Systèmes’ solutions for manufacturing. Fred covers aerospace & defense, automotive and industrial machinery & equipment. Likes include big metal objects, engines, and horsepower, especially when there are four wheels involved. Dislikes: recalls and people who doubt the U.S. can compete globally.
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