China looks to further automation to reduce costs and develop flexibility
SHANGHAI 30 June 2013: The tension between utilising China’s vast workforce and increasing the automation of vehicle production was made clear during presentations from leading industry experts. For Chinese OEMs, automation seems to be the solution to rising labour costs and the increasing complexity of multi-model production. Some 300 delegates gathered for a series of high-level presentations and market analysis, mixed with detailed workshop sessions across the whole range of manufacturing and assembly technologies. As always, the conference was carefully structured to allow networking and social interaction, including a mid-conference gala dinner.
According to Hu Jianping, deputy general manager for manufacturing at Dongfeng Nissan, fierce competition in the market, the greater complexity of vehicles and rising labour costs are placing additional pressures on carmakers. The rising cost of vehicle production is very difficult to pass on to the customer, so Dongfeng Nissan has adopted a synchronised production structure, he told delegates.
Focusing on cost, time and quality, this structure enables the company to address problems faster and gain a better understanding of its value chain. It functions in co-operation between the manufacturer, suppliers and dealers to deliver a rapid, flexible response to any production problems or customer demands, explained Hu.
The challenge of producing higher specification vehicles at a lower cost was echoed by Frederico Kochlowski, general manager of manufacturing engineering at Beijing Benz. He commented that, although still rising, labour costs weren’t the only factor influencing vehicle manufacturing in China. Offering car buyers more choice and higher quality is placing greater pressure on manufacturing and driving up costs.
To address this at Beijing Benz, line efficiency is being improved through a combination of automation and developing the skills of the workforce. Kochlowski highlighted the company’s new powertrain facility as a good example of the need for a combination of automation technology, highly-skilled workers and high levels of quality control. He also stressed the need for fast and efficient execution of new production lines where plant facilities were being expanded, and pointed to the importance of tier suppliers in the cost control/quality delivery.
Expansion of production facilities continues unabated in China, with both GM and Ford speakers commenting on their new plants. They were more cautious about ramping up automation levels, stating that any changes to production processes were considered on an application basis.
In response to questions on possible restrictions on automation, Ford Asia Pacific and Africa director for manufacturing engineering, Terry Sapsford, replied that the company uses automation selectively and strategically rather than as a blanket policy.
Great Wall’s Zhang Lijie noted that the rise of automation is inevitable, but would happen slowly, lessening any impact on employment levels. He explained that Great Wall's very first production plant still has relatively low levels, but that its second and third plants would see 50-60% automation, mainly in the welding section.
Mike Perez, GM’s director for manufacturing systems, stated that across the company’s numerous production facilities in China, automation levels could vary from 0 to 80% depending on the application. Shanghai Volkswagen’s Harry Schneider said that his company used around 60% automation in the bodyshop, but had no plans to expand this into final assembly.
Continued steady growth of the Chinese car market, in line with GDP, was predicted by Gu Xianghu, special adviser to CAAM (China Association of Automobile Manufacturers). However, growth in the commercial vehicle sector has been subject to fluctuations.
Gu explained that any future growth, for both passenger car and commercial vehicle sectors, would be influenced by external factors such as reducing the environmental impact of building and using them. Pollution and congestion have become a problem in densely populated urban areas, resulting in restrictions on vehicle sales at a local level.
The government’s macro-economic policies would also impact on growth, noted Gu. For example, at present there is an imbalance between the economic growth of the east and west of China. Exports of Chinese brand cars have exceeded one million units, but Gu pointed out that this is still a very small percentage of Chinese production capacity, and work would need to continue on improving the image and quality of Chinese vehicles. On a positive note, he reported that the domestic brands have a growing market share at home, which he said was a healthy indicator of manufacturing progress.
A key part of the AMS China conference was the programme of break-out sessions on specific technologies. They are described in the rest of this report below. The conference is part of the worldwide AMS series, which in 2013 continues with:
- AMS North America (Detroit) 25-26 September
- AMS South America (Sao Paulo) 29-30 October
- AMS India (Pune) 10-11 December
Also included for delegates to AMS China 2013 was a choice of two plant tours:
Tour 1 visited the Shanghai General Motors plant in Pu Dong, Shanghai. VME director Joerg Escher welcomed the AMS party with a short presentation on the facility, before the tour of the production lines.
Tour 2 consisted of two parts. First was a visit to Shanghai Volkswagen where, following a short video presentation on the plant, the visitors were given a tour of three assembly modules. The second part involved a visit to a Trumpf facility, where delegates were given impressive demonstrations of both laser cutting and welding technologies. Trumpf is now manufacturing equipment at the facility and the tour included the new production cells.
Wu Fang of Huayu Automotive Systems says the company will increase its robot parc by 380% by 2020 Wu Fang of tier supplier Huayu Automotive Systems opened the session with a presentation on ‘Thinking of Automation Development’, and showed delegates a slide of how operating income had increased with a rise in headcount, but had then started to flatten off as automation increased and the amount of manual labour reduced because wages have increased. He spoke of how Huayu, which includes hot worked components, interior/exterior trim and electrical/electronic components among its production, will increase its robot parc by some 380% between 2013 and 2020. He closed with the assertion that ‘one day Huayu’s manufacturing will be fully automated!’
Todd Montpas of Rockwell Automation spoke on the themes of the connected enterprise, risk management, integrated information and manufacturing flexibility. He talked of the increasing specification choice in vehicles, reducing packaged options, increasing individual options and smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles, which are all driving automation control requirements. He described ‘manufacturing velocity’, driving through the design of the vehicle in the bill of design phase, through bill of process to dictate automation specification. His slides illustrated so-called smart manufacturing enablers, which include information management through cloud computing, simulation & management, simulation modelling, energy management and lifecycle productivity.
He showed an example screen shot of a powertrain machining cell manual control, which illustrated the challenges of increasing vehicle complexity – so much more than five years ago as the goal of better fuel efficiency pushes for cleaner engines, hybrid and full EVs. Montpas also highlighted shorter production life cycles, and spoke of need to simplify machining cell integration.
Wang Xu of Pepperl+Fuchs described intelligent products for automotive UHF RFID systems, and for measurement sensors, weld-immune (weld spatter-proof etc) sensors, high-speed positioning sensors, wireless sensors and RFID systems. He discussed the difference between low-frequency and UHF RFID, and spelled out the advantages and disadvantages of both. He showed a new, compact UHF reader and its interface with Profinet, Ethernet/IP, Modbus/TCP, EtherCAT, Probus and others.
During questions from delegates, Rockwell's Montpas was asked about the availability of spare parts; what were the challenges facing suppliers in being able to keep their customers’ plants running all the time? "This is one area where we need local people," he replied. "We have a very global distribution policy, to have parts local to each plant, even if we do not have an office nearby. We work on remote support for our customers, we can then ‘dial-in’ and offer support from remote locations. For example, we could have an expert sitting in Europe able to directly help a customer in China.
“Rockwell provides a comprehensive asset management program from program launch and continued plant operations," he added."As part of this program the inventory can remain the property of Rockwell Automation, reducing our customers up-front capital costs." Critical spares are determined based on MTBF, he said, so that Rockwell manages the location and revision levels of this inventory to ensure availability of parts and minimum downtime.
Flexibility and automation were the focus of the presentation from Chang Tiejun, manager for manufacturing engineering at Chang'an Mazda. He explained how the use of different steel grades and the introduction of aluminium added to the challenges of reducing costs and cycle times, and improving stamping efficiencies.
Improved technologies and automation were key to reducing costs and cycle times while improving component quality, said Chang. One example is to increase the number of different parts per stamping cycle, which will dramatically reduce the number of separate stamping operations, he said.
Bringing another level of technology to the session, Luo Aihui of Baosteel discussed the use of numerical simulation technology for hot stamping processes. He explained how this could be applied to part design and to the two processes of cold performing and hot stamping. This technology can simulate the component temperature across the structure and establish an accurate quenching process. He noted that European manufacturing currently created the highest demand for HSS, and that both Porsche and BMW were using the simulation system.
The use of simulation software for stamping was also covered in the presentation by AIDA‘s vice-president for sales, Klaus Rothenhagen. He described how the company develops new press lines using simulation technology, which he told delegates allows them to carry out over 90% of the pre-production planning. AIDA has continued to develop servo press technology that Rothenhagen says delivers reliability, speed and quality. Energy recuperation is a key feature on the new servo press equipment, he added, with a claimed 70% recovery of energy per stroke. The company has grown its presence in China with a new manufacturing facility, which utilises 50-60% of locally sourced components, said Rothenhagen.
Trumpf’s global key account manager for automotive, Uwe Dux, focused on mega trends in both the automotive market and the technology developed for production applications. A central element of his company’s solutions is laser cutting and welding systems, he said. Dux discussed production-related applications for, and the advantages offered by, laser systems. He highlighted the trend towards larger and more complex parts and the use of higher strength steels. Here he felt laser cutting offered significant advantages in speed and quality of finish.
More vehicle model variants are resulting in greater complexity in managing the production process, commented Tristan Pfurr, chief executive of FFT Production Systems in Shanghai. His presentation covered 100% networked engineering solutions offered by the company and the use of digital planning tools. With flexibility now a priority on most production lines, Pfurr discussed a new framing solution along with a high-speed roller hemming system.
During the Q&A section suppliers were again asked to comment on how they were supporting their Chinese users. Uwe Dux replied that Trumpf had created a development programme specifically for its Chinese supply partners, and that this was an important part of the company’s continued growth in the region.
The speaker panel, which included Wang Juefeng, bodyshop planning manager at Shanghai Volkswagen, was challenged on why laser welding was not being used across the manufacturing process.
Wang said that SVW had invested in laser welding, but that the system required a high standard of service and maintenance support. He added that the cost of laser equipment is coming down, which would see it being more widely used in the future. Overall the answer to the question of 'why not more laser?' came down to cost and application, said Trumpf's Dux.
Wu Jinhao of Chongqing Chang'an told delegates of the ‘value chain’ operating at his company. He said that the company leverages its relationship with jv partners Mazda, Ford and Mitsubishi, and benefits from shared knowledge and technologies. He told delegates about moving the production model from built for stock to build-to-order which, while not new, is ‘quite challenging’. He spoke of his vision, that in the future, the customer may be able to ‘follow’ their car’s build progress on the internet.
Wu sees the Nissan Manufacturing System as the benchmark, and felt that jv companies can have an integrated production system. He noted that Nissan has a strong back-office platform in Japan and that has been introduced in China, but added that the local supply chain was still not good enough to properly use it.
Nevertheless, while it took 39 days in 2012 to complete the value chain of car production (from order, through bill of materials, to finished vehicle), this had been reduced to 33 days by the start of 2013, and was down to 22.5 days in April, said Wu. This improvement helps to achieve better balance with order to delivery and resource planning (in the past, the supply chain was not visible enough, he said), and he showed delegates graphs of how Chongqing Chang'an is catching up with Nissan’s performance on value chain integration in the vehicle segments that it produces.
Peter Klüger of KUKA Roboter gave an extensive presentation on compact production with 'reduced moving mass' using the company's lightweight Quantec family. These have 25% less volume, 12% less weight and 30% less energy consumption, he said. The Quantec range covers all payloads and sizes, he said, and offers 26 different configurations of robots from four family units.
Klüger showed delegates some possible energy-saving in BIW, with a chart of time resolution and consumption resolution (robot usage) when a PLC allows the robot motor to be idled. Further energy saving can be made through ‘brake-management’ software, which can save 230KW/h (across a lot of robots), he said, while standby management can drop consumption from the normal standby power usage of 220 to 140 W/h.
These savings centred on the replacement of hardware with intelligent software which can: use a powerful multi-core processor to allow the general replacement of hardware-based functionalities with software-based tasks; provide a 30% more compact controller; allow a 35% reduction in hardware components; and create a 50% reduction of cables and connectors, said Klüger.
He showed information about when energy is actually needed, as opposed to planned work and idle time. This can reduce the carbon footprint by 1.5 tonnes of CO2 per annum for an average-sized BIW robot, he claimed.
Zheng Shaoyu, CCR controls supervisor at Shanghai GM, was a panellist in this conference session, and declared that Klüger’s ideas of modular construction in handling systems was the future for bodyshop handling – in both software and hardware terms.But would more robots mean fewer jobs in China? Shaoyu answered that at S-GM’s plants in Yantai and Shenyang, bodyshop automation levels were expected to rise to between 70-80%, and at the new Cadillac plant in Shanghai the figure would be more like 90%.
Dongfeng’s Hu Changhau comments on the cost pressures exerted by customer demand for more model variants Dongfeng Motor Corporation is looking to a holistic solution for reducing production costs, according to chief engineer of final assembly, Hu Changhau. Echoing other comments at the conference on the cost pressures exerted by customer demand for more model variants, he described how Dongfeng was looking to develop its assembly processes by introducing automation in certain areas to provide more flexibility. Creating intelligent communications between all areas of the production process is another key development, he said. This will involve identifying the module or workstation’s individual IP address as the vehicle passes along the production line.
Such a process will remove the time-consuming scanning operations currently used, said Hu, as part of the goal of reducing the time to market for new models. Improving and integrating logistics will be another step in lowering costs, he added.
Improving energy management is one of the major challenges facing all OEMs. Schneider Electric’s solution manager, Yang Jie, discussed an approach which investigates the energy consumption/ efficiency of each production process and identifies a common pattern in the plant’s energy usage. A plan can then be produced identifying areas of high energy consumption, with departmental KPIs designed to improve efficiency. This process includes implementing an energy data monitoring system for the whole plant to provide continuous improvement, he said.
Efficient materials handling was tackled by Giovanni Bonetta, global marketing manager for Conductix-Wampfler. He highlighted the company’s inductive energy transport system, which he claimed offered a longer service life with less maintenance. He presented examples of its use in general assembly at a Hyundai plant, and the advantages of its use with AGVs on a transmission line where dust contamination can be an issue.
Zhang Lifang: JAC’s investment in laser welding technology Zhang Lifang, welding process engineer at JAC, outlined the company’s robot parc in the weld shop, some 105 out of a total 160 in the plant. These work on four platforms and six car models with 60 units per hour and a takt time of 51 seconds. She showed a video of BIW operations, using medium-frequency spot weld and what is claimed as the first-ever laser welding line in China. This included laser welding on the roof of the Shineray light van, removing the need for side-to-roof panel sealant or plastic or rubber trim through the clean and accurate nature of the laser weld, she said.
Zhang showed examples of two types of laser weld – filler weld and lap welds. The company also uses a lot of laser brazing. She showed the accuracy of laser weld with an example of a penetrative laser weld with a narrow weld window of 6mm, and talked of the very compact laser booth design – just 10m x 8m x 5.2m to take the Shineray van. To achieve this agility and compactness, JAC uses 7-axis robots from KUKA, ABB and Fanuc with Scansonic AL02 lasers.
She showed an interesting bird’s eye view of the laser welding on the van roof, illustrating the order of the welds. These were changed and perfected to give the best ‘tempo’ of the laser path, said Zhang. Key parameters included: laser power of 3000-3800W (this application would normally be 4000W, she noted); a weld speed of 4m per sec; and laser-on delay of 20 millisecs with laser-off delay of 210 millisecs.
Zhang also showed a deviation tracking and correction system used in laser weld planning. Weld tracking is made by scanning and computing the track. She also showed future plans for BIW at JAC and said that laser cutting of BIW pieces to cut high strength steels would be next. Asked how JAC justified the cost of laser she said that, though expensive, they made sense for the large volumes at JAC, and indeed in China generally.
Alan Stapelberg, body-in-white product manager of ABB Engineering gave delegates a world premiere of the company’s BIW video from a car at Chang'an-Ford. Filmed from a camera mounted on a floorpan, it showed spot weld, laser welding and laser brazing, and the grind and polish of the roof ditch. The video also showed the ABB flexible gate framer, switching gate frames in line in 18 seconds. This can accommodate six models and is modular so more models can be added, said Stapelberg. It is controlled by a normal IRC5 robot controller and is as easy to programme as a robot, he added. Asked about the stability of the gate framer when carrying large body components, and possible distortion or inaccuracy, he replied that gate framer is specifically designed to take these loads without distortion.
Hubert Rautenstrauch of Profil told delegates that in-press fastener integration was no longer so popular. He detailed the advantages of mechanically-attached fasteners (such as pierce nuts) over welded fittings. Particularly relevant was his presentation on the challenges and solutions to fitting fasteners to high-strength steel pillars, especially seat belt fitting to B-pillars. He showed how the 1500Mpa steel affected self-piercing fasteners and riveted fasteners (nuts), and then the torque results of trying to turn studs off in HSS.
He also showed a video of stud pierce fitting on a panel, with studs at different angles and on both sides, none of which is possible with in-press fitting, he noted. Claiming that Profil fasteners can be fitted in very short cycle times, with no impact on panel material or structure or even paint, Rautenstrauch said they could be fitted in 3-4 seconds per stroke and made a stable quality joint due to mechanically fitting.
Meeting the demands created by growth in car production has been a challenge according to Xu Bin, purchasing director for Faurecia Automotive Seating China. To meet both short and long term demand, his company has developed a procurement strategy with a group of its own key suppliers and involved them in improving supply chain costs and efficiencies. The company also conducts strategic sourcing reviews to evaluate its performance and establish criteria and standards for its suppliers to follow.
Wilson Ni, vice president of Beijing-based Asimco Technologies, described his company’s global aspirations and building close working partnerships with OEMs through a series of technical open days. He added that as Asimco, which makes fuel injection systems and powertrain and chassis components, developed its global presence this would be a benefit to its own suppliers.
Working closely with suppliers, and supporting them in improving efficiencies and upgrading technology is also the strategy being employed by Magna Seating China, according to purchasing director Lucy Yang.
This support, along with establishing KPIs connected to both customer and company objectives, has helped to reduce waste and delays, she told delegates. Yang supported increasing levels of automation, but with the caveat that the integration of any systems should reduce both complexity and any potential disruption to production.
When asked how Chongqing Chang'an managed the production of a large variety of built-to-order cars, Wu Jinhao of the company's management information department explained that it wasn’t just an IT issue, but rather went back to the R&D/design phase. He added that greater standardisation of data ‘language’ used by suppliers would be an area for improvement.
Building the new Beijing Hyundai engine plant will carried out in three stages, according to machining department manager Zong Yongyuan, with an overall focus on raising quality. The first stage uses an equal split between fixed and flexible machines, while stages two and three will employ 100% flexible machinery.
The company has introduced a tool management system to cut costs and inventory, and also moved to using a tilting type jig rather than a fixed pallet system, which according to Zong will help reduce cycle time. All the new lines have been designed using simulation technology and will be wireless connected to improve visibility of the production flow. Zong highlighted the fact that each engine is barcoded, allowing data to be collected and analysed throughout the process. This automated checking system will be augmented by a 3D imaging system.
New materials, extended life cycle and environmental requirements are some of the challenges facing suppliers of industrial cooling lubricants, said John Hopkinson, global marketing manager for metalworking fluids at Castrol Industrial.
Considerations include lubricating performance, storage and waste management. Hopkinson highlighted some of the complexities involved, such as aluminium alloys that range in hardness, plus the need for greater stability of the lubricant throughout the machining process.
Kennametal’s director for China Transportation, Lucy Fan, provided some examples of her company’s developments in tooling that she said could improve productivity and reduce costs. Combination tools that perform a number of different cutting operations can lead to cycle time, cost and levels of tooling being reduced, she said. Other developments include a cooling system that delivers lubricant through the tools, and the Y-Tech asymmetric drill designed to reduce imbalance when cutting.
The conference session dedicated to paintshop saw a Chinese truck manufacturer and two western suppliers getting down to specifics in the paint operation, and delegates responding with a series of detailed questions.
Yang Rui, technical quality engineer at Sinotruk Jinan Truck Corporation, told delegates about energy saving from idling pumps in pre-treatment (PT) baths, and the logic of using two smaller pumps instead of one larger in order to tailor output to the demand cycle. Other measures included the simple steps of starting machines in the paintshop one hour before commencement of the shift, instead of leaving them idling all night or since the previous shift, and shutting down the line in stages – as the last truck leaves each station then that section can be switched off, rather than switching them all off at the end of the shift.
Yang showed further energy-saving measures in adjusting PT bath, hot water rinse and oven temperatures according to ambient (outside) temperatures. He showed slides of PLC planning schedules, with standard on/off timings and special non-standard timing sequences. These measures reduced energy bills by 20% between 2011-2013, he said, giving savings of 80 rmb (about $12) per vehicle. Intelligent idling has also extended the lifespan of the equipment throughout the plant.
Michael Leitl, manager of application technologies at Dürr Shanghai, explained the company's EcoClean system, with its six feather rollers cleaning dust and preparation residues from vehicle bodies, followed by an electrical de-ionization which stops further pollution of the bodies. He also showed the second generation of the company's EcoRP painting robots, including models with swing arm 8/9 axis motion designed for interior painting.
Colour changing is another major area of innovation at Dürr, said Leitl, and described a so-called linear colour changer which shortens change time and saves paint when compared to previous ‘pig’ systems. The company's EcoPaint Checker is a thickness and quality checking tool that Leitl said could help increase first run rate by 3% by constantly checking paint thickness and quality, and relaying the information to other parts of the paintshop process.
He also described gluing processes in BIW and in final assembly, including window fitting, roof modules, the spare tyre compartment in the vehicle floor and the battery box.
At another paintshop supplier, Günther Eberhard, key account manager at Eisenmann, told delegates how he expected headcount at the company's five sales/project management centres, all on the east coast, to more than double to over 600 by 2017. Eberhard described conventional separation systems: dry filters/scrubbers; venturi systems with ‘wet’ air and fresh air supply with exhausted air; and venturi systems with wet re-circulated air, which leaves the air at 90-98% humidity.
He also showed the more modern methods, with the Eisenmann's E-Scrub and new E-Cube systems, whose cubic design enables cheaper and quicker cleaning by replacing cube filters when they are full of overspray, said Eberhard.
After the presentations, the paintshop session saw lively debate with questions from OEMs and equipment suppliers. Shao Li of Pepperl+Fuchs asked which was the most relevant cost measurement in paintshop, cost per unit (vehicle) or overall running cost, to which Eberhard responded that cost per unit was the most representative measure.
James Wang of Everbright Power Supply, which makes uninterrupted power systems, asked about the inevitable voltage spikes and power downtime in China, which Eberhard assessed at +/- 10% (compared to +/- 2.5% in Europe). Eisenmann’s shuttles have permanent magnet ‘markers’ fitted that tell the system where the shuttle is after a power outage.
Finally, David Hou of General Motors’ controls, conveyor and robotics division asked about limestone and other overspray recovery media, and how they could be recycled in China. Dürr's Leitl responded that environmental rules in China meant that used limestone could not be sent to other industries, such as cement manufacture, and that everyone in the industry was working on finding a solution. Eberhard noted that theoretically re-cyclable material such as limestone might not, in fact, be a green solution, and added that cardboard filters could be easily crushed for space-saving and incinerated at high temperatures with no harmful emissions.