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Pedal down—accelerating digitalization of the auto industry

Nov. 17, 2022
Digitalization is critical for accessing and modifying data to improve processes in the automotive and tire industry.

The executives who were gathered onstage during the Automotive & Tire Industry Forum at last week's Automation Fair in Chicago repeatedly stressed that the automotive industry is, historically, slow-moving—sluggish in adopting change. Then they each described innovative digitalization programs at their respective companies that any nimble startup company would be wise to emulate.

The forum was moderated by Ben Stewart, vice president of product strategy with Plex Systems. Panelists included ZEVx CIO Darren Elliott, Black Donuts Engineering founder and CEO Kai Hauvala, and Eagle Technologies Vice President of Engineering Jason Cleveland.

Coinciding with the breaking news that Ford Motor Company had selected Rockwell Automation to advance its electric-vehicle program, these experts drove right into that most-pressing topic in the world of cars. “What are you seeing in the shift to electric vehicles and its impact on industry?” asked Stewart.

“The data we get off of electric vehicles is immense—for monitoring, for maintenance, for performance optimization to validate quality claims.” Darren Elliott of ZEVx joined panelists in the Automotive & Tire Industry Forum at Automation Fair to discuss how digitalization is critical for accessing and modifying data to improve processes.

Elliott, whose company provides powertrain kits to convert commercial vehicles from diesel and gas to electric, noted how there is tremendous interest in the EV trend among OEMs who are trying to maintain current production processes while incorporating the elements of digitalization that will best suit them as they serve the hungry EV market.

“Demand for electric vehicles is incredible,” added Cleveland, whose company boasts a turnkey solution for business seeking an all-in-one solution for automated production and testing and is evolving to serve the bourgeoning EV market. He stressed how automakers are being pushed to halve production times to stay competitive. They are adopting more automation processes to do so—in particular more sophisticated simulation and emulation programs—while placing greater emphasis on the data emanating from those programs and processes to inform more efficient efforts.

Hauvala added perspective from the tire segment of the auto world, recognizing increased demand for data, particularly as it pertains to quality and performance in the field, in the case of tires on the road.

Those pools of data include information from the production processes that go into fabricating all the components of an electric vehicle and the data from those vehicles as they operate out in the real world.

“The data we get off of electric vehicles is immense—for monitoring, for maintenance, for performance optimization to validate quality claims,” said Elliott. “Digitalization is critical for us to be able to access that data to modify and improve our processes.”

The panelists echoed one another’s challenges on their digital-transformation journeys. Think standardizing simulations across different vehicle types or balancing the needs for speed against accuracy. Gaps in processes bedevil these efforts, as does inaccurate modeling.

And it wouldn’t be a true discussion of production hurdles in 2022 without mention of the supply chain. The panelists sympathized with the audience over struggles to get the items they need to produce the things they’re trying to produce. Cleveland recommended relying on smarter simulation programs to ease the burden of bad supply chains.

Embracing digitalization approaches sets these companies apart from competitors, the panelists agreed, particularly when working with customers embarking on their own Industry 4.0 journeys. Said Elliott, “From a competitive perspective, it changes the way we structure our partner network—how we learn from them and find out what they need to be enabled to deploy our systems effectively.”

Eagle Technologies is able to better team with electric-vehicle manufacturers to get things done in a shorter period of time, noted Cleveland, who credits the snowballing of his company’s digital transformation to an invitation from Rockwell Automation in 2018 to provide the battery-pack assembly machine, integrated with Rockwell Automation technology for its California-based Electric Vehicle Innovation Center. “We would not have had our success without going down that digitalization road.”

The asphalt is still wet on the EV road. It’s still early in this trend, particularly for an industry that, as noted by these panelists, is sluggish when it comes to change.

Panelists predicted big changes, positive changes as this market matures. And while they cautioned about the normal landmines—cybersecurity vulnerabilities and data leaks, lack of executive commitment and needless complexity—they are encouraged by an influx of digital-first engineers into the market; the possibilities that remote work enables in connecting global experts to resolve production problems; and the emerging tools and systems that can help those involved in all these disparate facets of electric-vehicle production to work quickly and efficiently enough to meet the insatiable demand for this product.

“I can’t imagine what we’re going to see in the next five years, with Industry 4.0 really taking off, with more automation, more robots, more artificial intelligence and machine learning,” mused Cleveland, as much a fan of digitalization as car-related metaphors. “It will be a fun ride getting there.”

This article is part of coverage of Rockwell Automation Fair 2022. Find the full collection of features here at our sister site ControlGlobal.com.