Electric SUVs in Forest
For some Factories of the Future, it is necessary to provide detailed explanations in order to understand exactly what product it is they manufacture. This is not the case with Audi Forest. The car manufacturer that saw the last A1 come off the production line in 2018 has since been manufacturing the first fully electric Audi model: the e-tron. This year, it also began producing the e-tron sportback. The electric SUVs with a range of more than 400 km are manufactured on an area of 563,000 m² by a team of around 3,000 people. These employees are spread over a number of departments and a range of support services. Another important feature is the company’s own battery production unit in Forest.
Ready for the AwardAudi Brussels was given a Factory of the Future award in 2020 as the result of a long transformation project. Production Manager Jan Maris said: “We have a long history of close cooperation within and with Agoria. When the application for participation came in September 2019, our Managing Director Volker Germann was not surprised. The pre-evaluation quickly showed that Audi Brussels was already at a very advanced stage. In fact, it was enough to list everything we were working on. The audit followed shortly afterwards. In addition to the list, we proved that our theory works in practice, with a guided tour of the workshop to see everything in action. On 6 December, it was announced that we had been awarded the title of “Factory of the Future.”
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Advanced Manufacturing Technologies
Cobots and AGV
The highly automated production hall in Forest comprises more than 430 robots. In addition, there are several collaborative robots. For example, these robots carry out an optical inspection of the weld seams in the battery compartment, but they also measure the strength of the weld seams, while human workers meanwhile carry out their tasks in the same space.
“The AGV (automated guided vehicles) are also part of our production and logistics flows. They ensure a flexible arrival and find their way around thanks to reflectors and routing control learning”, added the Production Manager.
“We are also developing internally an application called Battman,” said Jan Maris. “High-voltage batteries are in fact made up of various components that each have their own sensors and software. Our application makes it possible to read the parameters of these components without opening the battery. Eventually, the Battman (battery management) application will also find its way to our dealer services.”
On the digital side, Audi uses 'Virtual Fugenanalysis', for example. “For this we use the Carscan application,” said Jan Maris. “Using blue light measuring technology, this application produces a digital image of the car with colour codes. The colours indicate the degree of alignment between the gaps of the different sheets and body lines.”
Being CO2-neutral, Audi Brussels naturally achieved an excellent result in terms of ecology. “Our efforts in this respect are progressing in parallel with the transformation for the production of the e-tron”, recalled the Production Manager.
“A clean car means a clean factory.”
“We have installed a certain amount of new infrastructure, such as a water pre-treatment and purification system that has drastically reduced water consumption. The 107,000 m² of solar panels on the buildings also contribute to this.”
In addition, other environmentally-friendly initiatives have also been taken, such as planting a wooded area in Woluwé and the installation of plastic traps in the port of Brussels. “We use the collected plastic waste to make benches for our site.”
As a result of all these efforts, Audi Brussels is the first site in the large conglomerate to obtain the CO2 neutrality certificate. “And it does not stop there,” promised Jan Maris. “Our goal is zero-emission production by 2025.”
With the Battman application, which was designed internally, now present in production and also distributed to dealers, we have already given an example of attention to integrated engineering.
Audi Anlauf Check
The 'Audi Anlauf Check' is a second example. “The Audi Anlauf Check facilitates the sharing of experiences and the transfer of knowledge. In the start-up phase on the way to production, visits were conducted by teams within the conglomerate to sites that already have the expertise. This is the calibrated way of retaining and disseminating know-how.”
Human Centred Organisation
Attitude, involvement and health
Audi Brussels is a committed employer, said Jan Maris: “Naturally we set the standard in terms of autonomous teams, teamwork and ergonomics. In addition, a 'Stimmungsbarometer' is regularly drawn up. Employees can anonymously communicate their opinions and concerns on 23 questions about their work, the working environment, production, etc. In 2019, 80% of the staff took part in the survey, which shows a high level of involvement. The results of the Stimmungsbarometer are summarised and we comment on this summary in the teams in order to launch proposals for improvement.”
The Forest-based car manufacturer is also concerned about the physical health of its employees. “Every year, it is possible to take part on a voluntary basis in a health check in our health centre carried out by external doctors. The fact that we have been a 'Top Employer' since 2016 without interruption is no coincidence. I know that the highly automated production gives the impression that robots are at the top of the food chain, but the cars are still made by people. In assembly, hundreds of hands touch the car before it is ready. Our employees are central to the company’s business.”
In order to ensure that it always has sufficiently qualified staff in the future, Audi Brussels makes considerable efforts in terms of education.
“We were the instigator of work-study programmes in Belgium. Workplace learning is the perfect win-win situation. Students can gain experience in a real environment with the latest technology and we create a pool of potential employees who also know all our systems from the outset.”
We have already mentioned 'smart assembly' with the use of AGVs to ensure flexible arrival in the Advanced Manufacturing Technologies chapter. But Audi goes further.
“With artificial intelligence, we reconcile our battery production with car production,” revealed Jan Maris. “We manufacture 5 battery variants, all with different behaviours in production and use. We use AI to monitor the behaviour of these batteries and estimate the throughput time in order to ensure that the right batteries are available in time for the vehicles.”
Audi Brussels does not see itself as a closed complex, but maintains close cooperation agreements with several parties.
“We have a good relationship with the technical schools in the neighbourhood,” said Jan Maris. This is demonstrated by the work-study programmes. In addition, we regularly collaborate with other suppliers such as Materialise (3D printing, and fellow Factory of the Future award winner). We also maintain contacts with various universities and regularly collaborate with other companies on projects such as Flanders Make. Our membership of the Agoria technology federation is also part of this. Certainly now, as a Factory of the Future, we are developing a network in which we can fully benefit from the experiences of others.”
An award, but also results
Audi Brussels also sees the Factory of the Future award as recognition of the work done, but not as an end. “Our efforts were never made with the ultimate goal of being Factory of the Future. We have invested in the future of our factory and our people. It is nice to win an award, but the results and process optimisation are so much more important. We see winning the title more as a motivation and an incentive to improve even more.”
The future is paperless
Although it passed the Factory of the Future audit with flying colours, the Forest-based factory clearly has no intention of resting on its laurels.
Jan Maris cited two areas in which they will be investing heavily in the upcoming period: “There is still a lot of virgin territory in the field of big data. Process monitoring leads to optimisation. This makes it possible to intensify predictive maintenance, to further increase quality and to carry out purchasing actions even more simply and precisely. In addition, we are also looking at ways to become paperless. Digitising the shop floor is certainly a bonus in terms of the environment, but it will also provide access to more big data.
The Elfis (Elektronik Fehler Information System) project to digitally record errors and imperfections is currently ongoing. It enables us to optimise our processes quickly and efficiently. We hope that this project is a first step towards the complete digitisation of the warehouse’s paper records. In any case, we still have an exciting time ahead of us”, concluded the Production Manager.