Anywhere in the world that someone opens a vehicle door or window, adjusts a car seat or turns on the air conditioning, Brose technology is at work behind the scenes.
Although usually not visible to the driver, our products – including door systems and cooling fan modules – provide more comfort, safety and efficiency to cars produced by more than 80 manufacturers worldwide. Half of all new vehicles worldwide contain at least one Brose product.
Staying ahead of the curve, and continuing to deliver at the level we do, is an ongoing challenge. Competition in our business segments is getting tougher, and so is the business environment; vehicle production will take years to recover from the pandemic. This means we need to do everything we can to increase efficiency and reduce waste – starting with our production processes.
As the world’s fourth-largest family- owned automotive supplier, we employ about 25,000 people across 65 sites spanning Europe, Africa, the United States and Asia. The systems and processes that have carried us this far, however, will not support our growth plans or deliver accurately at the speeds and flexibility our customers deserve. With 5G and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technologies on the rise, the time has come to take advantage of all that virtual twins and digital agility can enable – especially to ensure consistency and visibility across our 43 manufacturing plants.
While we have systems for logistics planning and production scheduling, plus supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems for order processing, the way we design and manage our operations varies widely. Some of those operations, in fact, still rely on manual, paper-based processes.
Operators on workstations, for example, need significant documentation to effectively and accurately produce a part for our customers. These documents include detailed instructions to assemble products in the right way, check sheets to set the parameters on equipment, assessment sheets for quality inspection and more. In fact, an operator may need as many as 16 different documents to process a job. While we have succeeded this way for years, these processes are not sustainable – especially in an industry where nothing is predictable. It’s common for customers to make a last-minute change on the morning production is due to begin; this might require an entirely new set of production orders. As a result, simply setting up a production line for a single order can be a highly complex effort. The dispersed nature of our work also adds complications. For example, we are producing a component for a global car manufacturer at our plants in Germany, Czech Republic and China. Standardizing and optimizing across three different countries with three different sets of regulations is challenging.
"We need to position ourselves to embrace a new future. And so we are implementing a new software platform that connects the dots of our operations, standardizing our processes and aligning all of our sites."
To maintain our position as a benchmark supplier to the automotive market, we need more visibility and control over our processes, wherever manufacturing occurs. We need to position ourselves to embrace a new future. And so we are implementing a new software platform that connects the dots of our operations, standardizing our processes and aligning all of our sites.
We recognize the challenges. Standardizing processes across countries with different cultures and regulatory requirements is no easy feat, but digital, automated controls that recognize and adjust for those variations will simplify the task. Preparation and education are also essential. We are committed to involving all actors from the very beginning, to help ensure buy-in and adoption.
We are beginning with a pilot implementation across plants in the Czech Republic, China, Germany and the United States. These sites will initially standardize production control. Once this goes smoothly, we’ll look to roll out the platform to a new plant every two weeks.
The benefits we hope to achieve are enormous. Having all information accessible through a single virtual platform will give us a universal view, eliminating manual work. Changes to a line will be executed at the touch of a button; we expect to significantly reduce the time spent setting up production runs.
Having access to more production data will empower us to react much faster to customer requirements and practice continuous improvement on the shop floor. Visibility into and control of real-time data also will enable us to predict faults at the machines before they happen, reducing downtime by a significant amount and cutting waste – a critical step in meeting our sustainability goals.
Ultimately, we hope that virtualizing our production operations will help us succeed against the backdrop of Industry 4.0, allowing virtual twins to enable quick understanding, what-if decision-making and rapid execution of fast-changing plans. While challenges will inevitably arise, I’m excited about what this means for Brose. The pandemic has made the past 12 months difficult, but these new technologies make me optimistic about what’s to come.