Schaefer (right) tests equipment at a Daimler transmission plant in Rumania (Photo: Daimler)

Against a backdrop of steadily rising numbers of vehicle models and derivatives, extremely volatile markets and growing volumes, automotive manufacturing is facing major challenges. And digitization is adding more complexity to the mix. Daimler, like many other car companies, is organizing its production in global, architecture-based production networks.The result: Hierarchies are becoming flatter, and production more flexible. And the premium car group is moving closer to the customer than ever before. Markus Schaefer, the head of production and supply chain management at Mercedes-Benz Cars, talked to automotiveIT about the changes that are reshaping Daimler’s car-building operations.

Mr. Schaefer, manufacturing at Daimler is organized into networks and clearly de ned competence centers. Now the production launch of the W213 at the German Mercedes plant in Sindel ngen is imminent. When will the Beijing plant in the network follow up with the long version of the new E-Class? We all know that ramp-up curves are becoming shorter and shorter.ӬYes, in general, intervals between production launches in a model line are becoming shorter and shorter in various plants. We are leaving the usual path with plants that perform in a unique way and are heading in new directions with global networks. We have been pushing this issue for two or three years. The new E-Class will soon launch in Sindelfingen. We are launching production at the Beijing plant with a certain time delay because we sstill have to carry out hte more complex market-specific features. There are usually adaptations in operating switches, USB connections, etc.

Bremen is the competence center for the C-Class, which is now built on four continents. Based on your own statements, you are turning strongly to automation there. But you are now putting up a plant in Brazil for this vehicle class, where the focus by contrast is expect- ed to be on the human factor. Doesn’t automation pay off at the low volumes that you have in Brazil?At first, it is a matter of scaling production.With 26 plants worldwide on various continents, with various cultures and technology standards ”“ standardization and scalability are central points in this context. Our major plants produce about 300,000 units a year. That would be the standard factory that we are striving for worldwide. Here we already have standardized processes. Incidentally that also applies to IT. But the production of midrange volumes must also be scalable. We have defined a scale of 20,000 to 40,000 units in these cases. That applies to our plant in Brazil. We also won’t fully automate our large factories. We are in fact moving away from automation and are scaling it back.

Can you explain that to us? In the past, automation, based on highly specialized robotic facilities, has been very inflexible. If you are only building black cars and a lot of them every day, then it works.

That sounds familiar ...But full automation can no longer cope with the diversity of models and derivatives or the growing volatility of demand. We are now experiencing an upheaval in manufacturing. We are moving more in the direction of human-robot cooperation or even de-automation. So the human factor is again playing a strong role, because in the end the flexibility of the human is far better than that of the fully automated machine.

Shouldn’t humans be relieved of monotonous work?Relieving people of monotonous, strenuous activities is an important task in our company. That is one aspect, and we must find a solution for it. Another aspect is flexibilization. For this reason, we are charting a course toward cooperation between people and machines”“without huge robot cells and safety fences.

Is the redefinition of this human-machine interaction the key element of Industry 4.0?It is an important aspect that falls under the category “versatile factory.” In these factories, the direct cooperation of people and machines without safety fences will play an increasingly important role. The robots take over the monotonous activities and the person handles the work requiring intelligence.

You want to improve processes using big data. Can you explain that further to us?We consider big data to be another aspect of Industry 4.0. A wide variety of data results from our global standards for production plants and our cross-facility IT architecture for networking and controlling our factories. The idea is to analyze and use this information in a control loop that is as automated as possible. The goal would be to improve processes. When we look at complicated systems today, they operate with a technical availability of about 80 percent, but never 100 percent. The analysis of the data ultimately gives us the opportunity to improve the systems within a feedback loop, if the data are intelligently evaluated and lead to appropriate measures. I think we have extremely strong potential here.

Volkswagen has created a data lab in its IT area to achieve greater agility in certain fields. Can you imagine an IT think tank in your manufacturing area?Our IT department is very close to my area. And it is my impression that we are really working very closely, even handin-hand, with one another on solutions for our worldwide activities. As we are now positioned, I do not believe that the company needs data labs. I believe that our IT is giving us tailored solutions quickly and agilely. And if you take a look at Silicon Valley, speed is the watchword. We need fast solutions that are close to the business side and that assist us.

-Interview by Pascal Nagel and Hilmar Dunker