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The Brain of the Factory

Car production is a complex affair. Thousands of influencing variables need to be harmonized. The production, information and control system known as FIS helps. We look behind the scenes at FIS in Wolfsburg, where each second counts for the 3,500 cars made every day.

Take 200 square meters, 15 staff members per shift, 50 experts in total. Add 16 large screens, 40 desktop monitors, all manner of software and even more system intelligence. Have it work 24/7. And of course top it all off with strict access control. There’s no question: here at Volkswagen’s largest site in Wolfsburg, entrance 54, on the second floor, is where you find the heart of production. It is the FIS control room – or the “brain of the factory.” FIS stands for “Fertigungs-, Informations- und Steuerungssystem,” or production, information, and control system in English. The somewhat cryptic name covers everything from modular hardware and intricate software to the decades of experience and specialized knowledge acquired by the employees who plan, inform, monitor and above all effectively control the entire automobile production process.

It starts as soon as the customer signs the contract

“At Volkswagen we distinguish between the customer order process and the product creation process,” says André Renner, Head of Production Control and Program Planning. “We, the factory control and program planning team, support the customer order process and ensure that the customers’ cars are produced on time from the factory side.”
After large companies or individual customers configure their vehicles from many of variables and they sign order contracts which the factory, then accesses from our sales database.

Before an order actually lands at the factory, the customer order process checks in advance how the components needed for the individually configured car, for which a binding order has now been placed, can be coordinated with the capacity of the production facilities and the deliveries by suppliers. Have special market demands led to allocation or deployment restrictions at certain sites? To what extent do supply transport routes and also the final delivery route to the customer need to be taken into account? These and similar criteria will determine the binding production deadline and then the delivery date.

When this part of the process is completed, something called a “sonata” is generated. It is an acronym for the German phrase “Soll nach Tagen” (roughly “target in days”). Exactly four weeks in advance, the sonata keys out the capacity of the assembly line at the factory in question, in this case Wolfsburg. The planning is precise. For example, the assembly line runs at a 60-second interval. But because it takes 73 seconds to install a sunroof, cars with this specification have to be mixed in with other cars on the line. That is the only way to compensate for the extra seconds needed. Ten cars with sunroofs will never be produced in a row. And the sunroof is just one example of hundreds of specifications that need to be taken precisely into account. As Renner notes, “With more than 60,000 vehicles made per month, one car normally doesn’t compensate 100% for another, except in the case of large-scale fleet orders.” 

After this precise planning comes the product creation process. In the early development stage, a parts list for each vehicle is generated and then updated in the event of a model upgrade, for example. “The parts list is the basis for the marriage between the customer order and the component logistics,” Renner explains. Now there’s no turning back. FIS gives the sonata a unique ID number for that particular car. It contains the exact production date for this vehicle. At the same time, all the suppliers receive the list of components needed for precisely this car.

Now production can start

When the production date arrives, the vehicle is made. “Our assembly workers are meant to concentrate solely on the vehicles they are putting together,” says Hilmar Schimenas, who directs the FIS automotive control room. “That’s why we have to provide the best conditions for them and translate the customer order into the production language, so to speak, using FIS. The people, the machinery and the materials have to be precisely coordinated with each other.” Quite a few things can happen here: internal as well as external suppliers might struggle with bottlenecks, machines might break down, people can become ill, forces of nature can interrupt production. “We register every single disturbance in the process chain, from the suppliers to production, for each facility. If there is a problem on one of the four assembly lines, we take action right away,” says Schimenas. The aim is clear – not to lose a minute of production time, and to keep the lines running as smoothly as possible on every shift.

On this afternoon in early March, production in Wolfsburg is running like clockwork. A printer or a parts scanner might refuse to work, but the team quickly fixes it. “We’ve seen just about everything here,” says Schimenas. “But somehow we’ve always managed to get things back on track and solve every problem.” 

Wolfsburg has had FIS since 1992. From then until mid-March of 2019, more than 18 million vehicles have rolled from its lines, at a current rate of 3,500 cars a day.

The modular FIS platform and the factory control room are not only found at the main company site, but also at more than 40 sites in the Volkswagen Group worldwide. The FIS modular structure makes it possible to do this effectively, because the modules can be flexibly adapted depending on the situation at each site. If Wolfsburg has four assembly lines but Dresden only one, that’s not a problem for FIS. Flexibility is also required, because the sites have a different degrees of automation as well as other production processes. But that’s all feasible for FIS – new modules can be docked onto it without having to rewrite the overall software each time.

The Volkswagen Group has already produced more than 50 million vehicles in more than 20 years with FIS. More than twelve million lines of program code have been written into it – nearly a quarter of the amount Windows has – for 280 model versions. More than 200,000 production employees in the Group work with FIS every day. And the system registers more than 1,000 pieces of data for each car.

What does the future have in store for FIS? “We want to expand the system with artificial intelligence in such a way that it can control production autonomously,” says Renner. Individualized functions for each site or factory can be added and discretely accessed with the help of app technology. FIS team members worldwide are already in direct contact with each other in order to share their experience and put this vision into practice.

Many experts from the sites around the world say that in Wolfsburg, the Volkswagen Group has developed the most widely standardized IT factory control system. Some even say it’s the best. 

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