Imagine a factory where robots do all the dirty work, leaving their human minders free to oversee operations. While that may sound like the plot of a science-fiction novel, it’s exactly what happens inside Audi’s smart-plant, near San José Chiapa, Mexico.
We’ve driven to this state-of-the-art facility from Mexico City in a new Audi SQ5 that had been built there just a few months earlier. Since the factory opened at the end of 2016, it has turned out more than 150,000 Audi Q5s a year for sale on the international market. It’s the newest plant in the company’s 12-site production network, and among the largest, to boot, being built on a site that extends over 400 hectares – that equates to nearly 1000 acres or 400 football pitches. However, despite its size, Audi San José Chiapa is run by fewer than 6000 employees, thanks to its high level of robotisation.
And it appears Audi isn’t alone in recognising the benefits of high automisation. According to the International Federation of Robotics, by 2019, more than 1.4 million new industrial robots will be installed in plants around the world.
For Dr Hubert Waltl, Board of Management Member for Production at Audi AG, human-robot co-operation opens up many possibilities: ‘The factory of the future will feature increasing interaction between man and machine, allowing us to automate routine operations and optimise ergonomically unfavourable workplaces.’
But he stresses that there can be no factories without human beings. ‘People will continue to make the decisions about processes,’ he explains. ‘Our employees will continue to be essential for future-oriented, successful production.’
The body shop at the Mexican plant is where you find the biggest concentration of robots. A giant hall measuring 46,464 square metres, it uses 670 Kuka robots. These contribute to an automation level of 80 per cent, making the San José Chiapa production line one of the most automated in the world.
Automation isn’t quite as high in other areas, but even in the more traditional stages of the manufacturing process, robotics still feature prominently. Audi México boasts a twin-servo Schuler machine that, at just under 12 metres tall and with a weight of 3000 tonnes, is the largest steel press in the Americas. It can press aluminium and steel in up to six different directions and applies a force of more than 800 tonnes to shape each body part.
With all this automation already underway, you might well wonder what’s left for humans to do. Highly trained staff are essential when it comes to managing the factory and maintaining the robots and other machinery, but they also play a vital part in ensuring quality control. Using measuring devices called ‘Meisterbocks’, they make sure Audi delivers perfection in every single part. Robots build each vehicle to an exceptional level of quality, but nothing beats the scrutiny of an expert pair of eyes for that final check before a car hits the road.
Words by John Silcox. Photographs by Greg Pajo.