How Audi Is Building the Connected Facilities of Tomorrow
For over 100 years, Audi has been one of the leading names in automobile manufacturing in the world. Right now, we have 11 production facilities in nine different countries. We ship 1.8 million units per year across the globe. We have over 91,000 employees working to break new ground in automotive innovation. It makes sense, then, that the goal should be to innovate not only in terms of what we do, but how we're able to do it.
What does an ideal manufacturing facility look like? I’d say it’s automated robots building electric engine vehicles that drive themselves off the lot. State-of-the-art equipment that not only operates itself, but that also diagnoses itself —thus automatically fixing problems today before they lead to downtime and production issues tomorrow. A small team of employees not dedicated to the physical assembly of the cars themselves, but instead devoting their attention to doing what humans do best: dreaming up the future and figuring out how we're going to get there.
Now, we're not quite there yet. Some of those things are still firmly rooted in science fiction. But we're also probably closer to that day than ever before.
I went to school for computer science, which was always one of my favorite things as a kid. I've also always had a fascination with cars: I've been calling Audi's cars "beautiful" since long before I worked here. Those two passions first collided when I began work in the IT department for the production side of Audi. A year and a half ago, I transitioned into the manufacturing engineering department, where I remain today.
All of the technologies used for manufacturing a car—from the equipment in the press shop, body shop, paint shop, and assembly—comes out of my department. I'm speaking of not only certain autonomous robots, but also welding machines, as well as the connectivity behind those technologies.
A Connected Future: Just Over the Horizon
In the consumer world, the Internet of Things (IoT) is increasingly prevalent. We see connected devices all around us. The same is true at Audi, where we have IoT devices everywhere where it makes us more efficient. Our organization sees massive potential in intelligent production devices. Based on the sheer volume of data these devices create and share with one another, we recently realized that a major change was necessary for our networking infrastructure.
Our previous network, was not ready to handle the sudden influx of data our connected facilities would generate. There were certain solutions that worked well for the time, but we knew they were not scalable.
Keep in mind that the goal isn't just to manage and store this data. To leverage the Internet of Things to its fullest potential, you need to be able to extract valuable insight from that data on a regular basis. We knew our production line would generate immense amounts of data, and we needed the network and management solutions to support this connected future.
We had known that this was a problem on the horizon for a while. An area where this became more obvious was with our welding machines. Any body shop environment is full of welding technology. Naturally, this generated a lot of data. But, despite its abundance, we realized we didn't have the ability to collect data on each welding point and send it to a data lake or cloud-based solution.
Without that crucial step, we couldn’t analyze it using machine learning or any data-science approach. We had the data, sure, but couldn’t make use of it to improve our processes. What’s the point of data if you can’t act on it?
I think of it like society’s transition to smart TVs. You need to look at the whole stack. A smart TV, on its own, isn’t particularly impressive. To go along with it, you need applications that people will use, like Netflix. But, even before that, you need a solid internet connection. Without each of those pieces—the hardware, the apps, the network—you don’t have a complete solution. That’s what we were missing.
Building the Facilities of Tomorrow
Cisco has always been an important partner for us. Not just for our location, but the biggest part of Volkswagen Group's network is Cisco-based. It was extremely valuable to discuss our network requirements with such an experienced organization. We would bring our experience in the manufacturing field, and they would bring their experience in corporate networking. Together, we set out to find a way to bring these two ideas together as one.
Cisco is a tremendous long-term partner for this process, not only because of their vast experience, but they were also able to offer a great deal of insight into the future of the Internet of Things. They helped us understand IoT’s possibilities and, in turn, we were also able to teach them about the requirements of a real-world production environment.
Together, we've been able to come up with our vision for the IoT-capable network of the future—and the IoT-capable facilities of the future. Using Cisco’s Connected Factory technology, we have fast internet connections due to Cisco’s PROFINET network architecture.
Not only will we retrofit all of our old shops with this new architecture, but it will be automatically included in all new ones, too. If we set up a new production shop tomorrow, we aren't going to be implementing a 10 or 100 Mbps connection—it will be at least a 1 Gbps connection. Even if we don't need that speed today, we know that we will within the next 10 years. When that day comes, we'll be ready. We won't be dealing with bottlenecks like we are now.
Our new facilities will be constructed in a way that not only helps guarantee that all devices are connected to the internet, but also to one another. They'll be able to create and share as much data as possible to bring us the insights we need. This is very much a long-term plan—it's not going to happen overnight, or even in the next year or two.
Even though we're still in the planning stages, there is already a tremendous amount of excitement surrounding this overarching vision. Many people see the situation for what it is: one where new technology creates new opportunities.
Of course, there is also a lot of fear because change always represents disruption, even if it's positive in nature. But you'll have that in any environment. Likewise, we know that if artificial intelligence-powered welding machines suddenly become available tomorrow, we have the established network we need to support that technology, and the capable partner in Cisco that we need to support us.
A Better Tomorrow Is Well Within Reach
The optimism I'm already seeing may be the most important element of all of this. New opportunities for learning and improvement are always a good thing and, with that, there is a great deal of hope for the future with these products within Audi.
The technological change taking place within Audi is one that will soon occur within businesses of all industries, if it hasn't already begun. In my opinion, the future of everything depends on how we deal with the massive volumes of data that are being created all day, every day. You can either become overwhelmed by it and let it consume you, or you can figure out how to make it work to your advantage. Thanks to Cisco, our infrastructure is taken care of—and we're finally ready to embrace that future with open arms. When the technology of tomorrow comes, we’ll be ready.