Audi uses its Production Lab, or P-Lab, to identify new technologies and integrate them reliably into the production sequence. In Gaimersheim, a few minutes from the Ingolstadt factory, experts from P-Lab led by Henning Löser test the compatibility of new series production solutions. It is about finding and testing innovations that definitely contribute to increasing efficiency, ergonomics, flexibility and quality in Audi factories.
When great minds work together, it doesn’t have to be a comfortable bed. And even less so in the Audi Production Laboratory. When you enter the Gaimersheim hall, you have the feeling of being at the crossroads of a factory workshop and a computer laboratory. In one corner there are 5G antennas. Horizontally, in front of them, a robot sits on its base. In the back, there are all the computer servers. Subject matter experts sit at desks and stare at their computers. “We’re taking an idea that once worked in a lab setting and blowing it off the ground so it can evolve into a stable 24/7 operation,” says Löser. “We don’t need a big sofa or a ball table for that”.
For Löser, the actual production environment is more important. In the past, new technologies were poorly evaluated because Audi could not test them beforehand. To change this, the company with four rings created the Productivity Lab in 2012. Since then, Henning Löser’s team has been experimenting with smart support systems that employees create every day thanks to the perfect link between man and machine. These systems conserve resources while continuing to develop and improve procedural safety and workplace ergonomics. The best example is the season collection, Audi’s unique global collection and accessories concept.
Every day, experts research and test new high-tech solutions such as 5G to prove their suitability for mass production, which is increasingly connected. “In the process, we are in constant contact with our production colleagues to make sure that we can implement our ideas,” says Löser, who has managed P-Lab since 2016. “We show them exactly what we are working on. There is no point in us developing something theoretical that no one will use it in practice. We try and learn.”
Stability is important
Production consistency is important to Audi and P-Lab. “Our goal is to achieve 99.9% reliability,” says Löser. “We need to achieve the most consistent uptime possible”. What? How should maintenance colleagues be trained to continue the process without interruption? “We only transfer new technology into production when our colleagues believe that it brings additional support,” explains the boss of P-Lab.
Conceptual flexibility in automation
The technologies that have kept P-Lab experts busy over the past ten years have changed dramatically. They work on the principle of “higher, faster, more”. “Improving productivity is like a competitive game,” says Löser. “That means that we use more cameras, sensors, and most importantly, more algorithms in production.” Not to mention that the system must work smoothly. “Keep things as simple as possible. That way, they won’t break,” says the P-Lab boss.
Today, the paradigm shift in process automation is well underway. “If we use 100,000 cameras in production, we also have 100,000 industrial PCs doing evaluations,” he explains. “But then, who manages the maintenance and repair of these devices? Who updates the operating systems? Sometimes, the cost of maintenance explodes.” Self-driving cars are another example.The more they are used, the more features and fleet managers they need.
Added to this is the maintenance and monitoring of equipment. “The overall efficiency has to be good,” says Löser. The solution: cloud-based software and functionality. The update goes through the server – with three clicks. Löser explains: “Currently, we manage our computer lab in Heifer in Ingolstadt via a central server. ”
Experts look to the future
P-Lab plans and conducts tests in advance. According to Löser, traditional production planning did not allow such freedom. 5G is a good example. Since 2018, the P-Lab in Gaimersheim has been using a 5G facility. To use it as a radio network suitable for auto-production, the standards used are not the same as for video downloads. For example, device management requires Low-Reliability Long-Term Communications (URLLC). The tests carried out in Gaimersheim enabled them to develop the requirements for the international 3GPP standard. “We made 5G work well in our automation process,” Löser says. The work of the laboratory is different: to control the security cell using robots that can shut down the entire system in less than ten milliseconds, to the coordination programs using the connection of the device. “We will need it badly for future production and equipment,” says Löser.
Direct communication makes scientific solutions possible
Today, more than 30 experts from the production laboratory work in close cooperation with various areas.
Since colleagues from different departments are working at the same time in P-Lab on different projects, the number of employees is multiplied by five or six within the laboratory. “There is always something going on in P-Lab. Direct interaction with users is important,” says Löser. Audi production is based on a culture of open innovation, which allows the team to innovate more freely. This makes P-Lab a great place to work. an attractive destination for IT experts and eminent engineers.
According to Löser, the technologies can be developed to a certain extent in the laboratory. Frequent errors occur during their first use and must be corrected immediately. “To remain flexible, we need a smart factory that responds quickly to changing demands,” says Löser. “We can’t just try new ideas directly in series production. It would be overwhelming. P-Lab enables us to do important preliminary tests and proceed to the next steps thanks to small pilot projects. Then we test the technology and from there we use it for series production.