New cars, particularly luxury and executive-level models, are machines with an array of impressive technologies. Adaptive AI-based cruise control and automatic braking, more complex ECUs that result in more efficient engines, and camera setups combined with software that lets a driver with a caravan or trailer see past the obstacle.
But despite our cars being degrees of magnitude more sophisticated than in the earliest days of motoring, the way they are made is still hampered by the manufacturing practices of old.
The issues with the status quo
Using conveyor belts was truly revolutionary when Henry Ford first popularised them as a way of mass-producing vehicles, but, a century or so on, this dependable method is no longer the most effective.
It requires a huge amount of factory space, especially with the larger number of features and components on modern vehicles, and there are new demands on manufacturers that no one could have foreseen in the 1920’s meaning that a rethink of the whole process is required.
What is a flexible manufacturing cell (FMC) and what are the benefits?
Flexible-cell’s methodology is neatly summarised in its name. Instead of a linear system where a car is assembled stage by stage, individual modular ‘cells’ focus on a single car that is built up from chassis to completion without ever moving.
The flexibility comes in by the fact that space can be rearranged, and that machinery/robotics can be moved around as opposed to being fixed in place. The method would employ a number of Industry 4.0 technologies such as using AI to optimise supply chains between cells, using 5G networks to create a more interconnected factory, as well as the use autonomous robots that are already being employed to ferry parts around.
Modern cars now have a huge number of possible specifications, what with paint and interior trim options, infotainment, different engine/drivetrain options, which is great for the consumer of course, but this increased customisation is a double-edged sword for the manufacturer.
With the flexible cell manufacturing method, an individual customised car can be manufactured with the use of robotics to deliver the right parts to the right cell with much higher efficacy and lower risk of mistakes than a linear belt plant.
The future potential of the flexible-cell method
Flexible-cell manufacturing is of course not limited to car manufacture, but this is one certainly one area of manufacturing where the benefits of having increased focus and control over a single product, vastly enhanced efficiency, and lower manufacturing times could result in the creation of a new industry benchmark.