Technology Breathing New Life Into Automotive Manufacturing Supply Chain

Technology is bringing seismic changes to a multitude of industries in coming years

27Mar

The automotive supply chain is experiencing a whirlwind of change right now thanks to several important technologies coming of age. Each of these breakthroughs, some of which are still years away from maturity, are nevertheless already making waves. What’s just as clear as the opportunities these technologies present, however, is the need for new skillsets and new types of employees.

Let’s take a look at how all this technology is fundamentally remapping the automotive supply chain.

Big Data and the Internet of Things (IoT)

Current estimates say the world will contain more than one trillion internet-connected sensors by 2022 . Many of these sensors will find homes in manufacturing. This new normal will produce, as you can imagine, an incredible amount of data. Big data is an industry unto itself, but its presence will certainly be felt throughout the automotive supply chain.

The advantages of big data and the IoT to the automotive industry are clear: With sensors placed throughout the supply chain, actors in the industry will be better equipped to pinpoint bottlenecks and other problems that slow down operations. The result is more transparency at every step of the process and a faster resolution when problems occur.

Automotive is an extremely customer-facing industry with severe consequences for lapses in quality control and material integrity. The IoT will give automotive manufacturers the tools they need to reduce or eliminate problems that contribute to massive recalls and lost profits.

Even on a daily basis, the constant exchange of data makes business decisions easier to make. Big data gives us better key performance indicators and benchmarks — that is, more nuanced ways to define success in the industry.

Additive Manufacturing

Many of the technologies on this list are game-changers, but out of all of them, the potential impact of 3-D printing is possibly the hardest to overstate. Additive manufacturing is the logical conclusion of centuries of human technological process. It’s the true democratization of our manufacturing apparatuses.

Current consumer-level 3-D printers are getting more sophisticated all the time. While printer hobbyists can’t print their own cars yet, that’s going to change sooner than most people realize. In just the last few years, we’ve seen a number of breakthroughs in automotive manufacturing — including the world’s first 3-D-printed car, the Strati. The car’s body took just 44 hours to print.

Another company, Divergent, raised $23 million in January 2018 to continue development of its Blade, which is built from modular, 3-D-printed aluminum components. In both of these case studies, the primary benefits to industry when it comes to the application of 3-D printing are the improved speed of production, the greatly lessened impact on the natural environment, and the greater freedom of design.

Autonomous Car Technology

Driverless cars have been an inevitability for as long as the wheel has existed. Over the years, the slow realization of this technology has introduced nearly as many challenges as it promises to answer.

The material sciences have been some of the largest drivers of change in the automotive sector, as well as one of its chief beneficiaries. Autonomous cars require more electronic components than any of their forebears, which comes with specific requirements. Since electronic and mechanical components must work in harmony, these cars have greater needs where operating temperature and component intricacy are concerned.

We’re getting better and better at adapting components like body panels, weather seals, spark plug boots and sensors to these heightened requirements. This is due to improvements in our build materials, including lighter metal alloys, more versatile liquid silicone rubbers and more.

The Sharing Economy

The phrase sharing economy most often reminds us of Uber, Airbnb and bike-share programs — that is, services that let end-users share ownership of certain goods over limited periods of time to help spread the cost around and reduce the burden on each party.

Today’s supply chain is about to see a potentially radical transformation thanks to the sharing economy. It’s not uncommon for manufacturers to lease, rather than rent, some of their production machinery and material handling equipment. Telecommunications companies, too, are shifting toward renting infrastructure equipment rather than buying outright, because of the quick turnover in equipment as technology improves.

An early version of the sharing economy applied to the automotive sector is the Rolls-Royce Power by the Hour program. This program allowed Rolls-Royce to provide engine service and repair capabilities, tools and infrastructure to its independent service operators for a fixed, per-hour price. By not holding operators accountable for the minutiae of equipment procurement and maintenance, costs are reduced for manufacturer and operator alike, according to Rolls-Royce.

Automation


Automation is one of the clearest examples of technology’s double-edged sword. The near-future could see as much as 80 percent or more of the car-manufacturing process automated . By trading away some decent-paying jobs, however, the industry as a whole stands to benefit. Many of these jobs could pivot to some of the other emerging technologies and disciplines tomorrow’s manufacturing supply chain will require.

The application of paint and body detailing was one of the first beneficiaries of automated technology in automobile manufacturing, since they require perfect repetition and consistently high quality. Since the average car today contains tens of thousands of individual components, marrying additive manufacturing with automated production equipment comes with increasingly obvious benefits.

Some of these benefits include more predictable quality and easier-to-forecast business results, plus faster turnaround from one type of production to another and greater safety for the human workers involved.

New Technologies Require New Talents

It’s clear that each of these technologies is going to have a profound impact on automobiles, including how we manufacture and even drive them. However, one detail that might get lost is the variety of talent future automotive companies will require to remain competitive in this space. Ever-cleaner and ever-more-efficient technologies are reshaping every major industry on earth, but these shifts won’t come without growing pains. As technology improves, so too must our approach to education.

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