Feature: How Mercedes-Benz is creating the van factory of the future

08 November 2017

One of the best-known vans in the world, the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, is due to be replaced next year, and given the German firm’s recent concept vehicles, it’s a vehicle that’s bound to be packed with new tech.

But it isn’t just the vehicle itself that will bring new technology to market. Last month, the firm revealed plans to broaden its van production facilities at the Sprinter plant in Ludwigsfelde, near Berlin, to focus on “intelligent production” between now and 2025. Mercedes-Benz is digitising a number of facilities at the plant, to make it more efficient and gear up to handle different forms of production – and more of it.

The news comes ahead of the launch of the reveal of the next generation Sprinter, which is tipped to herald electric and hybrid powertrains, in addition to conventional clean diesel engines, which are among the reasons for the venture.

As well as building new types of drivetrain, Mercedes also intends to expand the variants of its existing vans and increase production volumes. The company says van production has been “at near capacity for years” and the upgrades are designed not only to render the factory hardware more efficient, but also to free up employees to work on “higher-end tasks”.

Frank Klein, head of operations at Mercedes-Benz Vans, explains: “We will take the next logical step in the advancement of intelligent production at Mercedes- Benz Vans with the upcoming new Sprinter. We already accomplished a great deal in recent years. With the paperless factory, self-driving transport systems and a host of other projects, we have set the course for the future. As part of our ‘IntelligentProduction@VANS’ strategy, we are now setting another milestone on the road to the fully connected ‘factory of the future’ for more efficiency and flexibility. We want to realise potentials throughout the entire production process with new technologies such as RFID. Our production operations around the world are to be fully digitised by 2025.”

The aforementioned RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology is a big part of the plan. If you’ve never heard the acronym, it’s essentially a tag and scan identification system; a small chip is planted in an object and can be read wirelessly by a scanner. Advanced though it sounds, the systems have been used in all sorts of applications, such as passports, the London Oyster Card and even to identify pets that have wandered off (it’s the microchip you give your dog or cat at the vets).

RFID is also used for stock checking, and Mercedes has employed it in a similar fashion at Ludwigsfelde. The manufacturer has been operating a pilot scheme, whereby the technology is used to track and identify van door mirrors and seats; small tags, about the size of European postage stamps and containing RFID chips, are fitted to the parts in question, and they’re registered by fixed scanners along the production line.

idea is that employees involved in the production process can easily locate the right components, keep tabs on warehouse stock and react quickly to any last-minute changes. For example, if there’s a delay in production, they don’t have to check the parts before they make any changes (they used to manually scan the seats and mirrors at certain points along the line), as the information supplied by the new, automatic scanners tells them exactly what’s what, all the time. Mercedes claims the scheme has removed seven “documentation-related work steps per vehicle” and means employees don’t have to worry about whether or not they’ve fitted the right part to the right van.

The trial has been conducted in conjunction with the Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation (IFF), and the manufacturer intends to roll out RFID to cover 40 different parts in the near future, with further plans to introduce it to other factories.

“New digital technologies such as RFID offer the major advantage of relieving our highly qualified production employees of routine tasks such as documenting work steps,” says Klein, “our employees have extensive experience and know-how in the production of globally successful vans. They should also be able to use both to full effect in their day-to- day work.”

RFID can also be put to use outside the factory, as suppliers are better able to keep track of parts, and it even proves handy beyond production. Mercedes claims scanners used by technicians in aftersales can immediately retrace the exact part fitted to a vehicle, which makes it quicker and easier to order replacements.

The “self-driving transport systems” to which Klein alluded also use RFID, and more are on the way. The Ludwigsfelde factory currently has around 20 automated guided vehicles (AFVs), which are controlled by a combination of a trick IT system, Bluetooth and RFID. The vehicles rely on transponders on the factory floor, from which they derive their next set of directional instructions, automatically scanning them as they go. Mercedes claims that a series of new optical sensors will allow the AFVs to operate freely – i.e. not necessarily on fixed routes and with the ability to safely navigate the likes of human workers and forklifts – by the end of the year and, under the investment plans, 10 more will be deployed as the new Sprinter hits the production line.

The final piece of the puzzle, at least for the moment, is a beefed-up IT system. The manufacturer has developed what it describes as “completely revised IT architecture”, including a “data highway”, which means the different IT subsystems can share and access information simultaneously. The set up also means new bits of software can easily be bolted on to the existing system, in a similar manner to downloading an app to a smartphone. Mercedes is rolling out the whole IT system across its other factories, too, which means plants around the globe will need little more than a click and a password if they want to implement some trick new tech from the Ludwigsfelde site.