Comau is a multinational company based in Turin, Italy and part of the Fiat Group. It boasts13,000 employees in 13 nations and annual revenue of over $1.8billion. Its Body Welding business unit is
a global leader in supplying advanced vehicle production systems for full body and components manufacturing, as well as turnkey body shops. Among its customers are all the major global
automotive OEMs. Innovation is one of Comau’s key brand attributes, similar to the innovative spirit it found in a strategic and highly collaborative relationship with Siemens.
Challenge: Completely re-think the body shop concept to realize quantum gains in production efficiency, flexibility and cost-savings
In 2008, Comau restructured to accelerate innovation creating a global network of innovation centers located in Europe, USA and China. The USA center, named the “Innovation Campus” is located in Southfield, Michigan. Comau’s executive management wanted the Innovation Campus to be a crucible of “game-changing” innovation, including development of the technologies required for body construction using advanced lightweight materials. According to Brian Brown, Comau’s Director of Controls and Robot Engineering, “They asked us to unleash our imaginations completely and think of totally new approaches to designing and operating body shops,” he said.
At that time, Brown explained, body shops were highly automated but still followed classic and long- proven assembly line processes. What Comau wanted to provide were ways to realize greater efficiencies, cut costs and, most importantly, to gain more flexibility in producing a wide variety of models. While the industry always welcomed small, incremental improvements, he said, Comau aimed to introduce watershed innovations that drove quantum advancements with major boosts to their customer’s profits and competitiveness.
Adding extraordinary urgency to Comau’s need to define and realize its innovative vision was the world’s financial meltdown in late 2008. The global downturn decimated the automotive industry. Demand for cars all but vanished amidst economic uncertainty only surpassed by the Great Depression. Ironically, these circumstances made Comau’s drive to revolutionize automaking more timely—and more needed—than ever.
Solution: A modular, plug-and-play “digital factory” approach to body welding that leveraged a close collaboration of two industry innovation leaders
Comau realized that new thinking required it not only to consider alternative approaches, but also to seek new perspectives from outside its existing constellation of key suppliers, Brown recalled. Siemens had a good reputation from its strategic partner relationships in other Fiat divisions, so Comau contacted it to explore the ideas and solutions its experts could offer.
Instead of pitching Comau on its considerable automotive track record, broad solutions portfolio and extensive experience as is common amongst suppliers, Brown said Siemens took a different approach altogether. It saw Comau’s goal of completely changing how auto manufacturing is done as an opportunity to apply its consultative methodology to explore the respective insights from Comau’s executives, division management and engineering community—all with different goals and views as to how to achieve them.
This discovery process set Siemens apart, Brown explained, and led Comau to choose Siemens as its partner in developing a revolutionary manufacturing concept for auto body welding. “With
Siemens help,” he said, “we developed a modular, digital solution called “ComauFlex” that’s fully automated with standardized, plug-and-play components, distributed controls, and faster, easier reconfiguration.”
For its part in helping Comau’s innovation efforts, Siemens assembled a team of more than 40 of its best automotive, industrial and process engineers and project managers from around the world. It also invested heavily in hardware to support concept development and prototyping in Comau’s lab.
The collaboration between Comau and Siemens was a huge catalyst to the innovative brainstorming that led to Comau’s “ComauFlex” solution, Brown said. “Our collaboration with Siemens is truly global and one of equals with open and honest communications that extend ‘top- to-bottom’ from the highest executive levels in both companies to the working teams in their weekly calls.”
Results: Self-contained fabrication modules that deliver quantum—and quantifiable—advances in efficiency, flexibility and cost savings
The collaboration of Comau and Siemens produced two breakthrough innovations, Brown said. Firstly, for body welding fabrication, the ComauFlex “BRIC” is a space-saving, self-contained modular unit with all the equipment, controls and networking in place. Its ability to be easily and quickly reconfigured allows automakers to add and subtract capacity faster and with greater flexibility than ever before.
The ComauFlex solution requires considerably less space than conventional auto plant body shops and reduces life cycle costs through savings in equipment, facilities, logistics, both direct and indirect labor, and energy consumption.
Brown said, the other Comau innovation is an assembly station called the “SmartCell Comau” that performs the functions of up to five machines. It assembles powertrains—engines and transmissions—in a parallel process instead of serial. This requires just a single parts delivery point, saving time, energy and labor. “The unit also takes up half the space and cuts power consumption by up to 60 percent,” he said.
For serial assembly processes, still mostly used in the automotive industry, Comau offers an innovative modular and scalable solution called SmartRob, allowing a worldwide standard application of processes and equipment. This standardized approach allows faster time to market and helps global Customers insure the same processes and manufacturing quality in all Countries. Offering both parallel and serial assembly systems Comau covers the majority of powertrain assembly applications.
Brown added that, given its fast re-tooling and scalability—automakers can just add units as demand requires—the SmartCell Comau assembly station offers tremendous deployment flexibility. It also reduces work in process—a quest of Lean Manufacturing—and thereby helps decrease the amount of capital tied up in both feeder and finished inventory.
In its letter awarding Siemens its business, Comau said, “…we have decided that Siemens brings innovative products and the most global, comprehensive product line in the industry. The
(Siemens) solutions will allow us to offer our customers the lowest cost and best quality product thus providing them a competitive advantage. ….”
In fact, that’s just what Comau’s done. Its ComauFlex and SmartCell Comau solutions are already deployed at Fiat and Chrysler, with its other major customers giving them serious consideration.
Brown, however, goes even further with a look to the future. “Comau has and will continue to benefit from the innovation that Siemens drives in other industries with the billions in R&D investments it makes each year,” he said. “Its customer Totally Integrated Portal (TIA) Portal, for example, provides us with everything we need for our own TIA, all in one place. Our strategic partnership will help keep us informed of these kinds of innovations that can benefit us and our customers, while also helping us bring our own innovations to market much faster.”
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