How automation advances, innovation are transforming EV manufacturing

Electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing is growing in the automotive industry and companies are working to meet the challenge through increased automation and innovative strategies and people.

By Chris Vavra May 10, 2024
Courtesy: Chris Vavra, WTWH Media LLC

Automation insights

  • In the automotive industry, innovation is imperative for competitiveness, growth and adapting to consumer demands, driving significant changes in manufacturing processes.
  • Successful innovation in automotive manufacturing requires the right strategy, technology and people, fostering an environment where creativity and problem-solving flourish.

Innovation drives the future regardless of industry. The automotive industry is no different. Paul Stephens, manufacturing transformation lead for Ford Motor Company, said in his presentation “Transforming EV Manufacturing with Advanced Automation,” there are three major areas driving the need to innovate: Stay competitive, overcome challenges and driving growth.

“These three apply to any manufacturing innovation in the industry today,” he said.

When the automotive industry was in its infancy, Stephens said it used to take 12 hours for Henry Ford to manufacture a car in 1908. Within five years, it took a little over 90 minutes. Today, the industry has transformed into something completely different. The assembly line is run by machines, but it needs to be flexible and adaptable to consumer demands, which are more sophisticated than ever.

Paul Stephens, manufacturing transformation lead for Ford Motor Company, said in his presentation “Transforming EV Manufacturing with Advanced Automation."

Paul Stephens, manufacturing transformation lead for Ford Motor Company, said in his presentation “Transforming EV Manufacturing with Advanced Automation.” Courtesy: Chris Vavra, WTWH Media LLC

“In order to be competitive, we have to fundamentally change how we produce a vehicle,” Stephens said. “We need to think outside the box and create new ways of pushing our manufacturing process is becoming more and more needed.”

Enabling innovation in automotive manufacturing

With more hybrid and electric vehicles being produced, significant innovation is needed to match the high rate of production. It’s a challenge, but a worthwhile one, according to Stephens, who said companies that innovate more tend to have a higher return on investment (ROI).

To enable successful innovation, Stephens said companies need to have three things:

  1. Have the right strategy.

  2. Have the right technology.

  3. Have the right people and culture.

“If we have all three, we have a really good setup for success,” he said.

They employed this philosophy with the development of the Blue Oval City assembly site, in Tennessee and Kentucky. Stephens said it’s designed to be the largest and most advanced and efficient auto production complex in the company’s history with a bigger assembly plant and smaller environmental impact.

“We’re maximizing our footprint and being very effective at developing,” he said, noting this was easier to accomplish with a greenfield site than a brownfield site. While innovation can happen in brownfield sites, having a clean sheet of paper and starting from scratch allows companies the freedom to be innovative without the pre-determined guardrails there at the beginning of the project.

Stephens added the lessons they learned from the Blue Oval City and other greenfield projects are being applied where appropriate with their brownfield facilities to help them stay productive and efficient.

The Blue Oval City project for electric vehicle manufacturing allowed Ford to develop a facility that has complete automated delivery with its flexible design.

The Blue Oval City project for electric vehicle manufacturing allowed Ford to develop a facility that has complete automated delivery with its flexible design. Courtesy: Chris Vavra, WTWH Media LLC

Industry 4.0 was at the heart of the Blue Oval City project, which encompasses many technologies and concepts. Stephens said they were able to take in what was available, acknowledged their challenges and matched technologies to address those challenges.

“We’re not investing in technology for technology’s sake,” he said. “We’re investing in technology to solve problems.”

Companies looking to innovate need to ask why and how they're going to innovate if they're going to be successful.

Companies looking to innovate need to ask why and how they’re going to innovate if they’re going to be successful. Courtesy: Chris Vavra, WTWH Media LLC

Getting the right people and the right culture is its own challenge. While automation may be driving manufacturing, people are the ones holding the reins. Stephens said there are five ways to get people to enable manufacturing innovation:

  1. Have engaged stakeholders and project leads

  2. Have a contagious problem-solving mindset

  3. Develop and encourage outside-the-box creativity

  4. Have an empowering culture

  5. Keep a relentless focus on the customer and their needs.

“If we didn’t have those,” Stephens said, “it would be hard pushing the innovation culture within the manufacturing ecosystem.”

Chris Vavra is senior editor, Control Engineering, WTWH Media LLC.


Author Bio: Chris Vavra is senior editor for WTWH Media LLC.