By 2020, Mercedes-Benz intends to be the leading and most innovative automaker in the field of digital technologies as well. The signs are looking good.
An unimposing exterior staircase leads to the inner sanctum of the production specialists of Mercedes-Benz: “Ringbahn” (circular railway) is the in-house moniker for the spick and span pilot factory in Building 40, named for the hangers on the ceiling that allow the car bodies to be transported in a circle. This area of the TecFactory at the Sindelfingen plant has been in operation for a year and a half. “We test the production methods of tomorrow here,” explains Andreas Friedrich, Head of the Technology Factory, Mercedes-BenzCars. “Ideally, the applications that come from here make the jump to series production. Then we have space again to try out new ideas.” The vast building has somewhat the flavour of an inventors’ exhibition: Engineers and technicians are tinkering at several stations, operating small and medium-sized robots that grab and move components or install components such as body plugs or sun visors.[youtube]var3MOtpKgM[/youtube]
MRC, THE MAN-ROBOT COOPERATION
The current stations include one where a medium-sized robot installs the battery in a hybrid vehicle, for example. An employee visually monitors the work space of the robot and if needed removes cables hanging in the path of the insertion curve. “Man and machine being able to work so closely together is new,” Lissy Brückner, Process Development Assembly Technology and Modularisation, explains the man-robot cooperation (MRC). “It is possible because the robot reacts promptly when the operator takes his hand off the controls.” The body is delivered for the installation of the battery by a driverless transport vehicle (DTV). Brückner says: “For this purpose, magnets are installed everywhere in the building floor, some 6000 of them in this building alone.” In concert with the course programmed via W-LAN, the DTV uses this invisible matrix for navigation.
VIRTUAL ASSEMBLY TESTS
Another station in the pilot factory is reminiscent of a game console with motion control: similar to the way Wii and others simulate the golf swing, virtual assembly involves real components being installed in a virtual vehicle, a process that looks remarkably realistic. “This lets us find out how a particular job can best be executed up to two years before the start of series production,” explains Jörg-Christof Schmelzer, Process Engineering Process Simulation Bodywork and 3-D Validation. He demonstrates the virtual assembly in person: fitted with about 60 reflective balls all over his body, Schmelzer looks like someone at the costume party of a games trade fair. Cameras are positioned all around the virtual assembly station. Motion capture technology transfers the movements of the employee to the virtual vehicle prototype. The production of the next E-Class already benefits from such trials using an avatar, for example. Compact lightweight-construction robots that start their job prompted by a little shove or self-driving transport vehicles that roam the plant as if by magic — many of the new production processes and logistics solutions seem like something out of a science fiction novel. But the future at Mercedes-Benz started long ago, because the potential is huge: when man, machine and industrial processes are networked intelligently in the “smart factory”, customised high-quality products can be produced more quickly. But while the production sector is the textbook example for digitalisation, it is just one of many: the goal is the complete digitalisation of the entire value chain.
DIGITALLY TESTED RESEARCH MODELS
Mercedes-Benz is already largely on the digital track in research and development: since 2007, the company has been bundling all simulation methods in the digital prototype, thereby creating a virtual car. The C-Class at the time was the world’s first production car developed consistently using this method.
How do customers benefit from this tool? “For example, we use it to improve the passive safety of our vehicles — faster, more precise and efficient than ever before,” is the answer of Prof. Dr Thomas Weber, Member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG, Group Research and Mercedes-Benz Cars Development. “Or take the subject of aerodynamics: before we let a new car come even close to our new high-tech wind tunnel, it has already successfully passed many digital tests as a complete data model.”
PERSONALISED MARKETING AND SALES
Digitalisation also opens up new possibilities in marketing and sales: every day, more than half a million people already interact with Mercedes-Benz on the brand’s global social media channels alone. And with Mercedes me, the brand has created an online access to the personalised brand environment.
The latest innovation is the new lifestyle configurator that complements the classic vehicle configurator: it lets customers enter their personal preferences regarding furnishings, travel destinations or kinds of sports and on this basis get a recommendation for a vehicle that fits their lifestyle.
“The lifestyle configurator lets you choose your new Mercedes-Benz the same way you order, for example, fashion on the internet today — simple, playful and without having to be a technology fan,” says Ola Källenius, Member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG, Mercedes-Benz Cars Marketing and Sales.
“The digital transformation is in full swing in our company,” summarises therefore Dr Dieter Zetsche, CEO of Daimler AG and Head of Mercedes-Benz Cars. “Mercedes-Benz is transforming itself from an automaker to a networked mobility provider.”
THE NEXT STAGE OF THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
The automotive industry stands on the verge of fundamental change. Alongside the electrification of the powertrain, the development of new markets and the implementation of innovative business models, the main driver behind this change is digitalisation. Industry 4.0 is the next stage of the Industrial Revolution. These were the previous phases of transition:
- Industry 1.0/mechanisation: The first Industrial Revolution began in Europe in the second half of the 18th century and ushered in the transition from an agrarian economy to mass production based on the division of labour.
- Industry 2.0/electrification: The second Industrial Revolution began around 1860 across the world. Electric energy allowed further rationalisation of manufacturing processes.
- Industry 3.0/automation: The third Industrial Revolution began in the 1960s and 1970s. Computer technology and microelectronics led to renewed change.