“Everyone may and should see what we are researching here.”
“Our only criterion is: Which innovation actually helps customers and employees? Matthias Behrens uses assertive words to describe what he and his 38 colleagues do at the Smart Production Lab in Wolfsburg on a daily basis. Behrens heads the lab. Once a year it opens its doors to welcome journalists and professionals. The aim of the “Open Lab Day 2019 is clear: “Everyone may and should see what we are researching here,” says Behrens. The interest is huge: Several hundred interested visitors came to the IT City at the end of September. It is a large office campus located to the north of the Wolfsburg plant premises.
“We recruit the best IT experts from all over the world.”
Here employees from all over the world are working on the future. They develop software and hardware, build pilots and prototypes, consult and scout, train and transfer knowledge. “We really recruit the best IT experts from all over the world for this purpose,” says Martin Hofmann, Head of Group IT. “We are continuously doing research that is absolutely application-oriented. That’s our most important requirement. We experiment with technologies that aren’t available commercially anywhere,” Hofmann explains.
The background is quickly explained: because the spread of digitalization across the globe accelerated tremendously in the last few years, computing power got faster and cheaper, ever more algorithms became available for free in open source databases, the simple question is: How does a big corporate group like Volkswagen apply digitalization to the future?
A behemoth is no speed boat
The question may be simple, but the answer is complex. The Volkswagen Group comes from classic mechanical engineering roots, and with its 640,000 employees is more of a behemoth – or at least certainly not a speed boat – in the market. “Innovations have to become established here,” Hofmann explains. In order to speed things up, the Group built IT labs around the world, which have become specialized: in Munich the focus is on machine learning, the Smart Production Lab in Wolfsburg is about smart production, and Berlin hosts the Digital Lab, where many cloud-based applications are created. The Group also has IT Labs in Barcelona, Lisbon and in India.
It’s always important to combine IT expertise with engineering capability. The time for developing IT in isolated spaces with little regard for practicality has passed. “Today we go to production, directly to the assembly line, ask questions and look at how we can genuinely help the colleagues there with our software solutions,” as Behrens explains it.
The Wolfsburg lab has a big advantage: it’s only a couple of hundred meters to the production line. “What’s good is then scaled. What’s not good is thrown out. We decide quickly and have flat hierarchies,” says Matthias Behrens. “And we don’t get bogged down in projects which we have noticed won’t end in success. We simply stop them.”
The Volkswagen Group pursues two premises in the process: the corporation develops software solutions itself to remain independent, and the software isn’t developed twice or constantly re-developed over and over again. It’s developed exactly once. “Our solutions have to be so functional that they can be applied worldwide and everywhere within the Group without a lot of expense or effort,” says Behrens.
What specifically is being researched now? Six examples:
Parts recognition in order picking: AI recognizes differences and defects in supplier parts. That makes it possible for colleagues who aren’t specialized in IT to configure an independent order picking station in the future. The application is possible in all Volkswagen plants worldwide.
Anonymization in images: one software recognizes people in pictures. It protects their identity by pixelating their faces automatically.
Machines learn to see, and cameras are the eyes for industrial computers. One software examines which cameras are best for which respective purpose. The examining technology for that was developed in Wolfsburg. It, too, can be applied worldwide.
Training robots: Robot activities are configured freely. They learn their movements from humans by mimicking their hand movements. A subsequent image analysis checks the quality of the learned robot movements.
Internet of Things: a sensor technology developed in Wolfsburg constantly measures various machine data: current intensities, air flows, pressures. These data stream into an IT evaluation system which predicts when a certain machine is likely to malfunction based on an extremely extensive collection of data. They can then be serviced proactively on the weekend, for example. That prevents any economic damage that would be caused by down time and, at the same time, also avoids unnecessary maintenance intervals.
Sequence optimization: algorithms developed in the IT lab optimize production processes, thereby increasing the number of products on the production line. That plays an important role at Volkswagen, which has to adapt its highly flexible production to a very wide range and number of models and variations thereof, as hardly any car is exactly like another nowadays.
The goal of all these projects and many others is clear: technology is never an end in itself. “Volkswagen will continue to tap consistently into the opportunities digitalization offers, to make work even more efficient and ergonomically better for the employees. That benefits both our customers and our employees,” Martin Hofmann sums up.