VDL Nedcar is the only Dutch independent car manufacturer. Since starting as DAF, the company has been building cars for Volvo, DaimlerChrysler, Mitsubishi and currently BMW Group. Twenty-three different models – together representing more than five million cars – have rolled off the production line in Born, in the southeast of the Netherlands.
Recently, BMW announced that it will not use the production facilities of VDL Nedcar from 2023 onwards. A disappointment, of course, but certainly no reason to throw in the towel. In fact, it only supports Nedcar in its ambitions to make its factory even more flexible and smart. A push to Industry 4.0 that Pepijn Timmermans, vice president digitalization at VDL Nedcar, is already working on for several years.
‘A big migration is necessary, since the last serious update dates back to around 2000’, Timmermans explains. ‘The applications were still top of the bill but it was getting increasingly difficult to manage and control the whole IT landscape within VDL Nedcar. For instance, the hardware of our manufacturing execution system was becoming obsolete and the infrastructure wasn’t compliant with new technologies.’
Apollo, VDL Nedcars in-house developed core application for efficient car production approaches end-of-life as well. ‘In the last twenty years, we have added many blocks and features. Not always did we stick to the architectural guidelines, so things started to diverge’, says Timmermans. ‘Especially when Mitsubishi terminated its contract years ago, and we had to switch to production for BMW within a matter of months, developers couldn’t take the time to integrate the required new software perfectly into the existing architecture. From a security and manageability perspective, we now needed to upgrade those components. But since that would mean a big investment, we opted to start all over with a clean sheet.’
Next to MES and Apollo, the third monolithic application within VDL Nedcar is SAP, supported by many toolboxes for HR, finance, maintenance, warehouse management etcetera. ‘SAP has a solution for the automotive industry. Twenty years ago, that tool wasn’t mature enough for us’, recalls Timmermans. ‘But it has evolved to a point that we now can transfer lots of features from our own Apollo platform to SAP, or to SAP S/4HANA to be precise. The remaining functionalities, like the control of the internal and external logistics, we will build ourselves.’
Proof of Concept Factory Overlay Twin
What We Did
Implement a Digital Twin of VDL Nedcar’s production line using Unity and Prespective and the power of Real-time 3D software.
”‘We know now that the sky is the limit. And we have reached that point with minimal costs and effort.’Pepijn TimmermansVDL Nedcar
Focus on flexibility and efficiency
VDL Nedcar is already well underway with its mighty IT migration. The MES layer has been completely renewed and rejuvenated. ‘This month, we will be able to turn off the old hardware’, according to Timmermans. This will be a leap forward to making the Born facility a truly smart factory. ‘There are so many cross links between coping with the legacy applications and our Smart Industry ambitions. Take something like predictive maintenance. For some it might be just another buzzword, but in essence it comes down to predictability, a trait that is highly valued in production. When you want to make use of your data as smart as possible, you first have to make sure you are digitized.’
For instance, one process within VDL Nedcar that created a tremendous paper trail was the instruction of the operators on the production line. ‘A large matrix printer produced a big, daily flow of paper with all the instructions for all operators’, tells Timmermans. ‘Every workstation has a limited amount of designated tasks, but an operator needs to know which of the three possible antennas he has to install in the car he is currently working on, for example. He could check that on paper. The process worked, but we couldn’t digitally follow all the jobs in realtime, verify whether or not the operator actually took the correct antenna or check if the bolt was tightened with the right momentum.’
VDL Nedcar has enhanced his quality process by fully digitalizing that process and equipping every workstation with a flatscreen. ‘There, the operator can check the order, watch an instruction video if necessary, and register his progress. We are digitally unlocking the whole organization for the man on the shopfloor.’
The same digitalization step has been taken in the quality process. No more notes on paper when an issue occurs, but a digital quality environment in the MES layer. ‘In the repair shop, they can now scan the barcode of the car and immediately retrieve a complete overview of all the outstanding issues’, says Timmermans. ‘You need to get those processes digitalized before you can move to Smart Industry. You can’t separate one from the other.’
The push to Industry 4.0 is vital for VDL Nedcars competitiveness. ‘We don’t develop products, we develop processes’, Timmermans explains. ‘Big car manufactures may have thirty production sites worldwide where they can deploy their applications repeatedly, and manage them centrally. We need the same applications but spend much less. So, we have to focus on flexibility and efficiency.’
As part of its Smart Industry program, VDL Nedcar is stimulating its employees to fail fast in innovation. ‘We ask our people to come up with ideas and proposals. With as little effort as possible, we explore what those suggestions or new technologies will bring to the company. If the benefits are big enough, we start a real pilot and move to implementation as fast as we can’, Timmermans explains.
The innovations could be anything, from robotics and smart wearables to smart maintenance, analytics and simulation. Pivotal in VDL Nedcar’s Industry 4.0 strategy is a digital twin of its production site. ‘Most manufacturers will start by creating a virtual production process, optimize it and use virtual commissioning tools to design, install and test the end result’, says Timmermans. ‘At VDL Nedcar, we have pushed to build a digital twin from the current factory. After all, the real value for us is finding the most efficient way to use our resources.’
Timmermans interviewed all the large tool vendors after which VDL Nedcar built a demo version with the support of an implementation partner. ‘Then, I met people from Prespective and they really understood what I wanted’, recalls Timmermans. Together, VDL Nedcar and Prespective built an upgraded demo digital twin of the factory, that can be fed from the real-life processes on the shop floor. The twin was developed with a ready-made solution Prespective can offer all manufacturers. At VDL Nedcar, it has now been applied in the automotive industry for the first time.
From his home office, Timmermans gives an demonstration. ‘Here you can see the situation in Born in realtime’, he comments. ‘Apparently, they are now working on a MINI Countryman at this station, and on a MINI cabrio on the next. I can click on the virtual flatscreen to see the order information and watch which instructions the operator is receiving.’
Rather surprisingly, the implementation of a digital twin at VDL Nedcar isn’t driven by a specific business case. ‘The first step was to show that it could work and verify what could be possible from a technological point of view’, says Timmermans. ‘We know now that the sky is the limit. And we have reached that point with minimal costs and effort.’
VDL Nedcar is currently describing its first use cases. Timmermans gives an example: ‘When we start working with automated guided vehicles, it could happen that one of them breaks down. A mechanic should then rush to the site and solve the problem. But maybe the failing AGV isn’t blocking the rest of the traffic at all, which stops the accident from being a high-priority event, or maybe we could use a routing system to guide the others AGVs around it. We could develop such a priority mechanism or a planner based on a detailed digital twin of the factory floor.’
The take-away from this story should be that you shouldn’t necessarily start implementing a digital twin only when it is based on a hard business case, states Timmermans. ‘You have to believe that the whole world is digitizing and that a digital twin is instrumental in gaining maximum benefit. When the twin is up and running, you can also use it for simulation purposes, so you can implement updates and changes faster and more efficient. As said, a big part of it is the vision that digital twinning is the way to go.’