AUTO INDUSTRY REMAKING THE HUMAN-MACHINE RELATIONSHIP, ONE CAR AT A TIME
Despite massive advances in robotics and digitalisation that would appear to threaten auto-manufacturing jobs, in this article AutoMate’s Harrison Boudakin says OEMs are in fact seeking to build a healthier relationship between human and machine, bringing significant benefits to workers in the process
Perhaps more than any other industrial sector over the last 30 years, automotive manufacturing has been the one most visibly and symbolically scorched by the flamethrower of globalisation, and its equally-disruptive twin: automation.
While both have unlocked galloping technological and economic opportunities for many, they have also – in the case of manufacturing – forced upon workers the prospect of unbeatable offshore competition, and in particular, the threat of robotically-induced obsolescence.
Australia, barely two years after the closure of its last major automotive production line, is an example of this phenomenon stretched to its most acute and final form. But even those nations with a still-thriving manufacturing base now face core questions about what the production line of the future looks like, and more importantly, what role the human worker will play in the manufacturing equation of tomorrow.
Unsurprisingly, it is the German auto sector that is leading the way in ‘evolutionising’ the answer to this key question.
Though always spurred by a relentless quest for efficiency and productivity, Germany also has a vested interest in protecting its large automotive workforce from the cutting effects of increased automation – not least because the threat of mass job losses in the automotive sector is as much a social issue as a political one there.
For manufacturers such as Porsche, arguably the most German of German automakers, this means the imperative to marry long-term job security with ever-strengthening levels of productivity is real – and nowhere are their efforts to achieve this more evident than in Leipzig: the former East-German city that is home to Porsche’s most advanced and most important factory.
It is here that the company is laying down a blueprint for the automotive factory of the future: one that seeks to use the very latest advancements in data-driven robotics and human-centred automation, to enhance the role of the production line worker, increase the efficiency of their outputs, and in doing so safeguard their jobs in a changing, globalised production market.
Porsche’s belief is that automation need not threaten workers; instead, it sees it as a way to add value to the people-driven processes that still make up a substantial part of vehicle manufacturing. This new approach to the human-machine relationship has been spurred by an unusual, but very significant catalyst: the need to defuse the country’s ticking demographic time bomb, as an ageing workforce struggles to maintain themselves in what are typically labour-intensive manufacturing jobs.
With its economy so keenly dependent on automotive manufacturing, the challenge for German car makers is to transform the risk posed by its ageing employee base into an opportunity to extend the working life and productivity of workers.
To that end, Porsche’s plant at Leipzig has been quite rapidly transformed into a haven for human-assisting, production line automation. Where before workers would stand awkwardly beneath Macan body shells and bend upwards to tighten bolts on the chassis, now the two-tonne SUVs spin down through a 90 degree arc on enormous, robotic conveyors, bringing the work to the humans at an ergonomically-perfect height and angle.
On the other side of the facility, hydraulically-controlled swivel chairs pivot employees directly underneath Panameras, allowing them to comfortably inspect underbody fittings without performing any ergonomic contortions.
And for those jobs where heavy lifting is simply unavoidable, Porsche now fits workers with body-hugging exoskeletons, which are worn like backpacks and essentially provide physical support to the arms, reducing as they do the potential for injury through repetitive strain.
Of course, dealing with an ageing workforce is only one part of Porsche’s ongoing efforts to better co-mingle human and machine in its production facilities. Beyond the physical world of robotics and production-line automation, the realm of augmented and virtual reality provides an enormous vista of opportunity for a company such as Porsche, and it’s one it has seized with a vengeance at Leipzig.
Using a system dubbed ‘Inno Space,’ Porsche is able to simulate a factory environment using a virtual reality headset, allowing new production processes to be tested without disrupting the regular operation of the plant, with a view to integrating them after validation in the simulator.
Augmented reality – essentially a combination of a virtual reality projection with objects in the physical world – is also now being deployed as an advanced training tool for production line workers, where employees can practice a physical process whilst viewing graphical overlays and instructions through AR glasses.
Porsche is particularly proud of its so-called “look and feel” test. In this instance, CAD data for a specific vehicle is fed into a tablet, which is then held in front of the real vehicle as it moves down the production line. The CAD image is superimposed over the live image as the worker moves the tablet around, making any manufacturing flaws – however minor – instantly visible. The result is a new level of quality control that goes well beyond the objective limits of human eyesight, without excluding the worker from the process.
Encouragingly, Porsche is not the only manufacturer deploying such augmented and virtual reality technology. Mercedes, Volvo, Mitsubishi and BMW – among others – are all trialling different versions of the tech – and benefitting greatly from the opportunity to increase the value of their production line workers through digitalisation, while also boosting quality standards and overall line productivity at the same time.
In a sense, then, one may very well argue that there has never been a more exciting time to be involved in the automotive space at a production line level. Far from seeking to obliterate workers into obsolescence with mass robotisation and total digitalisation, automakers are striving towards a mutually-beneficial equilibrium between human and machine.
In this case, what’s being produced is a wealth of opportunity for existing and future production line employees, as manufacturers look to not only meet the challenges of a changing technological landscape, but also use the blank canvas the digital world offers us, to define a new – and better – role for the humans within it.
Written by Harrison Boudakin for AutoMate Training, an industry leading provider of online, on-demand digital training.
Visit www.automatetraining.com for a free 14-day trial.