Factory of the future - 24/7

The “lights-out” factory

Source: Tomorrow’s Factories Will Need Better Processes, Not Just Better Robots
Harvard Business Review, authors: Ron Harbour and Jim Schmidt

This article is a mix between a reposted article written by Harvard Business Review and comments from Wiksfors technology. Our comments are written on a grey background, so it is easy to distinguish between the two. Enjoy the reading.

Harvard Business article: When people think of the automotive Factory of the Future, the first word that comes to mind is automation. They think of the “lights-out” factory that General Motors Chief Executive Roger Smith fantasized about in 1982 and Elon Musk talks about building today—plants so dominated by robots and machines that they don’t need lights to work.

There’s no doubt that the auto industry will continue to vigorously pursue automation solutions to lower the cost of producing cars. But the reality is that any major leap forward on cost and efficiency will no longer be possible through automation alone, since most of the tasks that can be automated in an automotive factory have already been tackled.

Wiksfors’ view

The situation in the Modular Housing Industry is very difficult. This industry has not developed new methods and new materials over the decades and centuries. The industry is simply doing almost the same thing under a roof as they are doing at a stick building on site.

The machines used in the industry are invented in the fifties and the control systems in the eighties. The use of modern technology is hard to find.

Harvard Business article: When a real Factory of the Future arrives, it will not look different because we have automated the processes we use today. It will look different because we will have invented entirely new processes and designs for building cars requiring entirely new manufacturing techniques.

Take the paint shop. Today, in most mature markets, it’s more than 90 percent automated, yet it is still one of the most expensive and space-intensive sections of the factory. Robots, instead of humans, perform most tasks—applying protective corrosion coats, sealant, primer, basecoat, and clear coat to achieve the highly polished finishes we like on our cars—but the process itself is not that different than what it was 30 years ago.

For instance, in the BMW plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina, processing a car through the paint shop is a 12-hour task, involving more than 100 robots, and requiring a vehicle in the paint assembly line to travel four miles within the factory before the process is complete.

Clearly, there has to be a better way to paint a car, but to make that operation more efficient and take cost out will require the development of a new process. Perhaps it will be the experimental approach of applying a single film over the car and then baking it on, like in a pottery kiln—currently being tested in automotive research labs. Or 3-D printing of the entire car body in the color a customer orders, completely eliminating the need for a traditional paint shop and body shop. Whatever it is, it will have to be more than adding a few more robots into the mix to make a significant difference in the cost of producing an auto.

Wiksfors’ view

The lack of R&D and long-term commitment for the industry is striking. The example of the paint shop is very relevant for the Modular Housing industry with the difference that this industry is not a mature market, being developing their processes, materials, and methods. The leap for the modular industry can be large, revolutionary, and powerful if handled in a responsible and mature way.

Harvard Business article: Today, two-thirds of automotive workers—the human ones—are in the general assembly section. Automating this section has proved more difficult because the customization and complexity of today’s autos requires the flexibility humans provide. Most factories are producing several models of cars simultaneously, and the mix of those models is often changing depending on demand. It would be expensive, if even possible, to reprogram robots and machines to be able to accommodate daily changes in factory production schedules.

There are also some tasks on the assembly line for which humans are better suited, such as handling all of the intricacies of installing and connecting a car’s wire harnesses—the nervous system of a vehicle. With a future market expected to consist of electric and autonomous vehicles, the electrical systems will need to transmit more data faster and unfailingly, compared to today’s car.

The consequence to the assembly plant: more wires and connectors leading to longer, heavier wire harnesses. For this operation to be automated would again require a new process—perhaps going wireless, with the electrical systems operating via electronic modules or connecting via the cloud.

A new process will also need to be developed to assemble electric vehicles since they involve the relatively uncomplicated installation of the battery pack and an electric motor. Simpler tasks may lend themselves better to robots, but several steps on the line will also be bypassed. The leap forward will be accomplished through the development of a new process—in this case, electrifying the auto—not automating an old one.

Wiksfors’ view

The relationship between Automotive and Modular House production is also here striking! The production of a box is probably about ⅓ of the total labour force in a modular production. The remaining workforce is working on composition, surface work and interior finishing.

Wiksfors Technology wants, together with a partner, change this into a more cost-efficient way of producing affordable housing with better quality, lifetime, CO2 friendly and for the many. The need is big all over the world and the time is now! This is our mission!


Join the movement

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.