Andreas Friedrich, manager of the Mercedes-Benz TecFactory, talks about new technologies and production methods and the role digitalization will play in shaping tomorrow’s car plants.

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Friedrich says the TecFactory has more than 250 projects in its pipeline (Photo: Claus Dick)

Every day, Andreas Friedrich deals with systems that seem straight out of science fiction. The facility he runs, the TecFactory, is embedded in the Mercedes plant in Sindelfingen, Germany. There, Friedrich and his team spend their days looking at ways to make Daimler plants worldwide more efficient and smarter.

Mr. Friedrich,you manage the very pinnacle of car production at Mercedes-Benz: the TecFactoryin Sindelfingen, Germany. What are you working on?

Since its founding in 2014, the TecFactoryhas been a fixed part of the Mercedes Benz Cars manufacturing organization. We make sure that our plants around the world use the same or similar building blocks of technology as they manufacture vehicles. We see ourselvesas the intellectual pioneers and inventors of tomorrow’s manufacturing processes. We are the link between innovative ideas, pilot applications, tests and the use of new applications in series production.

What are you dealing with specifically?

Flexibility and standardization continue to be important to us. We have divided the manufacturing process chain into individual modules: 37 inbody shell manufacturing and 30 in assembly. They are found in every factory. Without this harmonization, we would not be able to manage the company’s large number of launches and its growing production volume. Especially in our Future Lab, we are using the most advanced smart manufacturing processes within the TecFactory. Digital tools are helping to further boost flexibility, transparency and efficiency in our production.

In the past, did Mercedes make too many concessions to the plants’own preferences?

Let’s put it this way: We have recognized that it makes sense to have coordinated product modules, technology building blocks that can be used worldwide in line with Industry 4.0, and uniform production strategies every step of the way. As technology is advancing rapidly in electric/electronics, digitalization, and smart production,the TecFactoryis not likely to run out of work. In the Future Lab on the Sindelfingen grounds, we have continued to add stations where production specialists and process developers can grapple with new functions.

Are new production applications changing the management of the factory?

With the standardization of input values and system technologies, we have massively increased the level of transparency. It has never been greater than it is today. How long does it take a plant to assemble a vehicle, on average? How many units does it produce per hour? These and other key operating figures make it possible to carry out even more exact calculations ofa facility’s efficiency and plan for costs precisely as we keep improving our production network.

How far in the future are you looking at the TecFactory?

We bring new ideas into series production as quickly as possible. But there are also forward-looking scenarios that will certainly take longer. Our Future Lab’s horizon extends to the year 2030 and even beyond. We have defined technology roadmaps for all parts of the production process. They indicate when we can expect a particular production technology to be available.

Who is actually doing something with this information?

The information is important to everyone in the product development process. For example, if our design chief, Gordon Wagener, and his team determine the design language for future vehicle generations, we have to know what tools and processes we will need in manufacturing as soon as possible. We coordinate product modules with our development engineers at an early stage. Physical buildability checks have slid far forward on the timeline. And the best part is that the close cooperation also works in reverse. We regularly inform our colleagues in design and development about new production methods that could give them new freedom.

What technologies are you the happiest about?

I devote a large share of my working hours to the opportunities that digitalization is opening up for us – today, tomorrow and in the future. At the moment, the focus is clearly on the infrastructure and the degree of networking on the component and sensor level within the factory. Other factors include the computing power available at the facility and the stability of the WiFi network. In other words, we are systematically orienting the factory structure to digitalization and will gradually pilot and rollout use cases.

How many use cases are we talking about?

We have more than 250 interesting projects in the pipeline. On this basis, we can take major steps toward smart production. The component of the future is networked. It knows exactly where it is in a factory and it can find its destination on its own.

Does this have an impact on logistics?

At Daimler, as with any manufacturing company, inbound and outbound logistics ties up capital. New track-and-trace solutions are leading to the improved material supply at our assembly stations. They allow the capture and processing of data related to movement in real time. There is another aspect: Thanks to advances in technology, we will be turning to nondestructive materials testing. We will also be able to access process parameters in even greater detail and use predictive measures tosharply reduce both downtime and waste in manufacturing operations.

These sound like demanding tasks. Do you have enough specialized staff with the right skills to handle them?

With its Mercedes-Benz brand, Daimler is a very attractive employer. Despite the increased competition for qualified employees,the number of job applications we receive is in the six-figure range each year. We can fill all our positions with highly qualified candidates. But we have to target even more big data experts and bring them on board. They are the professionals who evaluate data and can do something with the information: data scientists, cyberneticists and mathematicians.The TecFactory has been moving ahead withthe reorganization of its staffing since 2014, and production is one of the areas with thegreatest number of new external hires. Our management board is also encouraging the buildup of new digital skills among Daimler employees without reservation.

Smart factories are great. But existing plants that are not yet intelligent are in the majority at many manufacturers. How much does it cost to convert a plant?

In my view, the greatest challenges are the older production facilities that are not networked and do not generate any data. Converting them is sometimes more expensive than purchasing a new facility. Nonetheless, we are running digitalization projects. Here in Sindelfingen, for example, we generate a digital depiction of every roll of band steel that is delivered to our stamping plant. This is allowing us to get started with an automated production process while we continue to operate. We move all the data into a hybrid cloud and can share and analyze the information with our partners.

 If we were to ask how digital the plants in the Mercedes-Benz production network are, what would you say?

It depends on the plant you are looking at. If we consider the production of the new GLE and especially body assembly in Tuscaloosa, we see highly advanced digitalization. The rigid production chain is gone. Autonomous, self-optimizing transportation systems are handling the supply of material as if by magic. And even in our long-standing plants, our production processes are gradually becoming more flexible and more modular. In the future, we will be producing cars with internal combustion engines as well as electric vehicles from our EQ product and technology brand on a single line. Production has to breathe and adapt quickly to demand.

Is the production rate still going to be the pulse of car manufacturing?

We are gradually going to get away from that in the body area. Our approach to material supply is changing with intelligent assembly. It is moving toward baskets of goods.They accompany the vehicle as it is built. They not only make the process more efficient – they increase quality as well. The right components are always within reach.

There is a lot of talk in the auto industry about 3D printing. How important will this technology be for manufacturing?

friedrich-2-1024x639 Daimler’s TecFactory is looking as far ahead as 2030 (Photo: Claus Dick)

Daimler has had more than two decades of experience with additive production. In the TecFactory alone,there are now 25 machines operating around the clock. We printed more than 100,000 3D parts last year: headlamps, instrument clusters, entire center consoles – whether they were for model representations at the design stage or the process validations of parts used in prototypes. It all worked superbly, but it did not come close to exhausting the full potential of the technology. We are now going a step further, printing tools and even engine parts mechanically, and we can run them on the test stand at the end. The beauty of 3D printing is its enormous time savings: Tools and parts emerge directly from the geometric data and can be validated immediately.This alters the design process – there is less casting, machining and deep drawing, and more bionics, lightweight design and additive manufacturing.

When will we see the first completely printed Mercedes?

Part of my job description is dealing with visionary approaches. There is actually a project in this area underway in the TecFactory. But it will be a while before we reach that point. We see this as an area where we can explore the limits of the technology.

Let’s talk about green production: Are energy efficiency and CO2emissions important issues at the TecFactory?

Definitely. We are working hard to reduce our energy consumption, although we are looking at water consumption, waste reduction and other areas as well. A photovoltaic system on the roof of the Future Lab generates green electricity. Large battery storage systems can be found on the shop floor itself. We use them to analyze how well wecanbufferstored energy in our manufacturing operations and supply our machines and installations. Green production will also play a central rolein the new Factory 56, where we laid a cornerstone in February.

And finally, let’s look into our crystal ball: What will car manufacturing look like at Mercedes-Benz in five years?

We will have smart production – highly networked factories that manage themselves in many areas. They will certainly not be devoid of staff, although workers will handle different tasks than they do today. It is very likely that we will sharply scale back automation in assembly in exchange for greater flexibility. At the same time, we are turning to new ways of managing body shell manufacturing toallow greater versatility – and to do it as sustainably as possible, with maximum energy efficiency.