Cars are evolving. We've gone from exclusively burning dead fossils in our petrol tanks to charging them up at the wall overnight, and now we're even thinking about using even fancier ways to get our vehicles from A-to-B. With fancier cars has to come fancier production methods. Step inside the top-secret Audi production facility in Germany where humans work hand-in-servo with robots to build thousands of custom cars a day.
Welcome to Ingolstadt, Germany. A town populated by 127,000 people with Audi's head office and main production facility at the centre.
When we say head office, we really mean it too. The Ingolstadt plant is the same size as the city of Monaco, with a greater population to boot. 40,000 employees work at Ingolstadt making everything from the Audi A3, A3 e-tron, A3 g-tron, A4 sedan and Q5 soft-roader, as well as working in administrative, sales and support roles. It's a city built around precision engineering and luxury, re-enforced by steel and glass.
Ingolstadt churns out 2500 completed vehicles per day, with everything completed on site in one of the specialty workshops. There's the tool shop where Audi punches out its own tools as well as body components required to make a car; the paint shop where robots automatically spray a chassis over four to five hours; a research and development facility along with an attached crash test centre for researching new vehicles and improving current models, as well as the body shop which puts it all together.
As soon as we enter the body shop, the lights snap on to reveal a vast factory with loads of open space. The only interruptions to the space are giant bays where orange robots are precision welding body components together with lightning speed and fierce heat. The facility often runs dark, simply because robots don't need light to get the job done.
There's one man standing by a component welding robot, feeding new parts to the machine. His particular bot is building wheel arches for the Q5, taking around 12 pieces of aluminium belted into shape by the tool shop robots and welding them into one component.
Before these robots were put in place a few years ago, workers would have to make thousands of spot welds on a car before it could be put together. Automating the process with robots means that Audi can produce thousands of customer orders per day.
800 robots work around the clock at Ingolstadt, with humans supplementing the process in 12-hour shifts. A ventilation system works around the clock to pump fresh air into the sealed facility, scenting it with the smell of custard to please the remaining humans on the factory floor.
The whole facility is incredible energy efficient too, with solar panels augmenting the power requirements of the factory built into the roof. The building dates back to the early 1950's, but the equipment is state-of-the-art.
For a factory that sees 2500 cars drive out the door every day, it's remarkably uncluttered. That's thanks to some nifty German thinking that sees cars transported between stations automatically using a series of lifts and tracks running above the heads of the workers. Once one piece is bolted on, it's lifted up automatically by a robotic lift that gently transits it to the next station.
Robots handle most of the construction work, including spot welding, shaping and assembly. Giant electrodes attached to either side of a robot pincer will clamp down and charge itself up to affix two pieces of a car together.
It's not dumb work for these bots either, as every car they have to work on is different depending on the customer's specifications. The Ingolstadt facility only builds ordered cars, rather than just churn them out to sit in car lots around the world. One customer might want a sunroof, which means a new part has to be put into the production order for a robot to grab at the right time. Some are left-hand drive as opposed to right-hand drive, while others need different interior accents and colours.
To manage the robots and tell them what comes next, each vehicle as a small grey data box attached to it which feeds information on what needs to be attached next based on the order. The robots read the data and select the appropriate components to bolt on.
To make sure that everything is going to plan, Audi has laser-guided robots measuring every aspect of the car as it moves between stations to ensure that it's safe, correct and exactly what the customer ordered. If a car is meant to have a sunroof and doesn't, it's flagged before it can go any further. And to make sure the spot welder bots are working correctly, Audi inserts a dummy order into the production line every 4 hours. That dummy car will be removed from the line and completely taken apart to ensure that the robots are doing their job.
The most concentrated human presence in the factory lies in the final assembly and finishing shop sections, where real people take parts like seats, steering wheels, airbags, stereos and other mod-cons for assembly into the car. This is where the greatest cooperation between human and robot takes place to improve ergonomics for the workers.
Rather than have humans bend over and repeat straining tasks, hydraulic booster seats are used which allows a worker to glide over the production line, grab components and slide back into a car to attach them all. It's like a hover-seat attached to a rolling production line.
The Ingolstadt facility is cleverly divided by a rail line which connects it to shipping ports for Europe and beyond. Cars are automatically moved to the holding area, covered for safety purposes and auto-loaded onto the train, all by a small team of logistics staffers.
Ingolstadt isn't a unique facility, either: Audi has over 10 production facilities around the world from Europe to India and even in China making cars like the beautiful new TT, Q7 off-roader, A1 and S1 sport hatches and the savage R8 supercar.
So will Audi still employ people to work in their factories in future now that robots have been proven to be so efficient? Absolutely, according to Dr. Hubert Waltl, board member at Audi AG in Germany.
He believes that robots will never entirely replace humans inside the car makers' factories. "In the future, there will be no factory without people. People will continue to make the decisions on production processes. And our employees will continue to be essential for future-oriented, successful production," he said.
It's a new age of manufacturing that brings with it incredibly cooperation with man and machine to augment the construction abilities of a human, and it's awesome.
Luke Hopewell travelled to Germany as a guest of Audi Australia.