Time to start turning digital twins into improved productivity

Digital manufacturing in the auto industry is changing the way products evolve. From design to manufacturing, digitalization is optimizing the process.

By Alisa Coffey December 14, 2017
Confidence in digital manufacturing is high among leading automobile manufacturers these days, and for good reason. Industry leaders are beginning to realize benefits from their investments in digital technologies and next generation robotics. Italian carmaker Maserati offers a prime example of how the benefits of digitalization can accrue. In Maserati’s case, everything from design to execution planning is implemented digitally. Maserati used to take 30 months to manufacture their Maserati Ghibli luxury sports sedan from start to finish.  Thanks to digitalization, production time was reduced to 16 months, and Maserati succeeded in achieving a threefold manufacturing productivity increase. 
Another successful application of digitalization can be found in South Carolina, where BMW’s Spartanburg plant is equipped with more than 1,000 robots, all of which help to weld BMW X5 vehicle bodies with accuracy within a tenth of a millimeter. Robots also control BMW’s first fully automated hang-on assembly line, which attaches the doors, hoods, and hatches to the vehicles—a process that used to be entirely manual. The plant even has an automated engine marriage process and a new integrated paint process that uses 30% less energy and produces 40% fewer emissions. 
Digitalization, and its proper implementation, now is emerging as a critical success factor for the industry. It means gathering more data and analyzing that data in a virtual context so that better decisions (and in many cases predictive decisions) can be made. It’s changing the way products are developed, built, and delivered through machine learning, additive manufacturing, and advanced robotics. And it’s changing the way products evolve through cloud technology, knowledge automation, and Big Data analytics.
Digital transformation provides a competitive advantage
Digital technologies present a billion-dollar opportunity for vehicle manufacturers to transform their production and re-orient their value proposition to meet the needs of today’s digital consumers. The competitiveness of the automaker increases because digitalization introduces even higher speed into product development life cycle, thus enabling faster response to consumer demand.
Simulation is one digitalization tool which drives shorter innovation cycles, even when highly complex products and large volumes of manufacturing data are involved. In a simulation environment, a virtual model of each component in a device or machine is generated, which allows designers and builders to explore what-if scenarios easily, inexpensively, and quickly. 
These virtual models have come to be known as “digital twins.” They analyze the gathered data then use it to run simulations and benchmark performance, allowing plant operators to pinpoint where gains can be made. By pairing virtual and physical worlds (the twins), analysis of data and monitoring of systems can avert problems , which prevents downtime, develops new efficiency opportunities, and enables planning for the future. Existing assets can be modeled against their digital twins and new designs can be tested in the virtual world, saving time, money, and resources. Testing the interaction on a screen can verify a modification to a car engine, for instance, before new holes need to be drilled. 
According to Jeff Hall, director of automotive at Siemens USA, a connected digital factory and the Big Data it generates provides automakers with the insight and agility required to compete. “Digitalization enables automobile manufacturers the capabilities to increase productivity across their entire value chain, from design and engineering to production, sales, and service. In concrete terms, this means faster time-to-market, greater flexibility, and enhanced availability of systems on the plant floor,” Hall said.
The integration of digitalization into operations is also a flexible process. Digitalization can be adopted at the pace that fits the needs of an organization. Some automobile manufacturers start with retrofits, or may begin by digitalizing one assembly line, or even one machine at a time. However a company chooses to begin its path to digitalization, the important thing is to start now.
Alisa Coffey is marketing communications manager for aerospace, automotive, and OEMs for Siemens Industry, Inc.