A learning process for both factory and workforce
Although the opening of a new car factory is nowadays a rare event in Germany, the latest opened in Aachen only a short time ago. The e.GO managers are pinning their hopes on complete data transparency in the production process, which is due to start on March 1st. Factory manager Bastian Lüdtke reveals here how things went with the pre-production run.19 Feb. 2019
Lüdtke, a calm, analytical man who holds a doctorate in industrial engineering from the technical university in Aachen, is facing the biggest challenge of his brief career. In less than 100 days the first e.GO Life electric vehicle is due to leave the assembly line in “his” factory. Lüdtke, factory manager of e.GO Mobile AG in Aachen, knows that the customers, some of whom placed their order online, are waiting impatiently. “We’ve no prior business experience, no precedents,” admits Lüdtke. Is this car industry novice excited? “There’s a lot of excitement about who gets the first car,” replied Lüdtke, grinning. e.GO is Lüdtke’s first employer and his new boss is his former doctoral supervisor Professor Günther Schuh. For many e.GO employees – whether in design, purchasing, on the conveyor belt or in logistics – it is the first time they have ever developed and built a new car completely from scratch. Nonetheless, Lüdtke and his team are confident. The production run is no problem: only 45 cars per shift, a figure which he agrees “would be laughable to the big carmakers.”
The e.GO Life model – initially a vision, a gamble on the future – is becoming reality. Built in Germany, it is an affordable, four-seater electric town car, with big wheels and a go-cart feel – in short, fun to drive. The big car manufacturers are not laughing now. Bastian Lüdtke and his colleagues are optimistic.
Pre-series production has run for several weeks. It is a process of learning for the factory and the workforce. “Making an electric car is less complex than a combustion model,” Lüdtke explains. Many of the assembly workers are former master technicians or car mechanics recruited by e.GO in and around Aachen. Currently more than 40 are employed in assembly work. Monitors on each of the numerous work stations show the individual tasks and operations, as well as the production data. The principle is that a good picture is better than any explanation. “It is important to us that our employees have data transparency.” More than 650 parts need assembling. “Actually, our production is a quite conventional line with 28 stations.” At each of these stations over 1,000 variations are produced. Theoretically, many more variations are possible.
Dr. Bastian Lüdtke
Robots, cobots and automated small parts warehouses are largely absent at e.GO, although welding robots are deployed in the adjacent body shop. In production it is the human workforce that sets the pace. “Our 4.0 is lean manufacturing and data consistency through all stages from development, purchasing and manufacturing to the end customer,” explains Lüdtke. At present robots are not employed in e.GO work processes but the Aachen workforce collect data at every stage of each process involved in creating a vehicle. Lüdtke tells us: “We have no redundant data.” The e.Go planners have no old data amongst the data sets. The factory is a greenfield project, which makes the work easier. e.GO stores the batteries below ground, not least because lithium-ion battery fires are difficult to extinguish. As a rule, carmakers are keen to store as little as possible and work on the basis of an advanced just-in sequence (JIS) system of deliveries. The drive units are configured in small pre-assembly lines on a conveyor belt and then transferred to the assembly line. Lüdtke informs us: “We worked together with our supplier to develop the pre-assembly line.” Of course, data on the assembly process is also collected at this stage of the value chain. “We have data consistency in the PLM system through to ERP, WMS and MES. Our plan is to upgrade the development parts list into an efficient manufacturing bill of parts without redundant data and breaks in the systems interface.” This list would then be automatically added to the ERP.
The end of data silos
This requires interfaces – each individually configured. Lüdtke stands in front of a huge video screen on which he can call up the data evaluation from every sector. “In the past it took three or four people weeks to process the parts lists and update the process description. Thanks to data consistency this is now part of the normal work procedures.” Data silos are nowhere to be seen at e.GO, something other companies still dream of. “We are a learning factory which shows us how it is operating. We can quickly change processes and if we identify the need for a robot on the assembly line, we can implement that quickly. The data supplies us with the right answers,” says Lüdtke confidently. e.GO expects that data transparency will mean that problems in production can be more quickly identified and resolved than is the case with competitors. “Due to data consistency we will be able to offer end customers new prod-ucts and services with our local partner Bosch and react to problems more quickly.”
But Lüdtke and his team cannot manage entirely without automation. Driverless automated guided transport systems facilitate the barrier-free factory. “It is no longer necessary to build electric cars using an electric overhead conveyor as far fewer procedures need to be carried out under the vehicle. It is quite different from combustion engines.” The automated guided transport system is from SEW Eurodrive. “The Industrie 4.0 production model implemented by Johann Soder at SEW won us over,” resumed Lüdtke. At SEW an automated guided transport system feeds the assembly line. This automated transport solution caters for the individual vehicles, energy supply, WLAN communication, as well as navigation and vehicle coordination. Line cables in the floor allow for contactless energy transmission, thus eliminating the problem of wear and reducing maintenance. Precisely positioned transponders are set as required in the floor. Using the software from Bruchsal, e.GO can simultaneously plan the conveyor line as well as simulate, emulate and set parameters for different track sections. The company is already planning for growth. In fact, Lüdtke and his boss, Prof. Dr. Günther Schuh, are already working on the next project: a driverless small transporter. The data from the e.GO production will help them both to apply 4.0 production technology to this vehicle.
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