A senior Nissan executive detailed how the car maker is using autonomous vehicles in its factories, as well as its ambitions with the driverless car, at the FT Innovate conference in London earlier this week.
Ponz Pandikuthira, VP of advanced product strategy at Nissan Europe, was speaking on a panel on Industrie 4.0, where he summarized the Japanese car manufacturer’s use of robotics, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine-learning technologies to increase efficiency at one of its factories in the north east of England.
In a somewhat fluffy panel which talked around Industrie 4.0 without highlighting many specific examples, it wasn’t until Internet of Business asked to what degree Nissan was utilizing Industrie 4.0 technologies at its factory plants that a real use-case emerged.
Indeed, Pandikuthira gave one shining example of the benefits the company is finding from automation at its plants.
“It’s massive actually,” he said of Industrie 4.0. “Our plant in Sunderland manufactures 500,000 cars a year, but only has 6,700 employees. You can’t do that unless you have massive amount of automation and robots that are doing things incredibly efficiently.”
“Really, if you want to deliver high-level quality and efficiency…you are going to have to automate tasks.”
Sadly, Pandikuthira wasn’t pushed for in-depth details on this by moderator, FT editorial director Ravid Mattu, although he did mention the use of UAVs in Sunderland, and infer the use of IIoT technologies.
“We put in a high level of automation [at the factory in Sunderland] …AGVs (automated guide vehicles) deliver stuff just in time. It is fully automated,” said Pandikuthira, adding an example of AGVs delivering seats to the right part of the manufacturing plant at precisely the right time.
He went onto detail how the extended supply chain involves some thousands of partners, all of whom are connected by Information Technology.
“The supply chain is massively computerized. So, the key part of it is Information Technology and the vast improvement in software. It has dramatically made the manufacturing process much more efficient.”
Nissan explains more on autonomous vehicles
A Nissan spokesperson today told IoB that these AGVs have been in production in Sunderland since 2015, carrying kit around the plant, and obeying their own traffic light system in order to maintain efficiency and avoid collisions.
The spokesperson said that these AGVs have been made in-house by the firm’s Kaisen department (Kaisen is said to be Japanese for ‘continuous improvement’, although Google suggests ‘change for better’ instead).
“They follow routes along material handling aisles and production zones,” said the spokesperson. “They use a safety scanner which projects a safety field in front of it. The size [of the safety field] is dependent on the speed of the AGV, and if it is turning a corner.”
Nissan Europe says that the safety field ensures that the AGV will not drive into or pull the kit boxes into anything stationary. Upon the scanned field being broken, the AGV automatically slows down and the siren will sound. The scanned field is shown by yellow edging along the route
Before the start of AGV motion, the siren will sound and the lamp will flash for three seconds to warn any personnel in the vicinity. This is only possible if the safety scanned field is clear.
“Traffic lights are at a high level where AGVs cross junctions or aisle ways. These turn off / on as AGVs cross,” explained the spokesperson.
AI and IoT part of the future…but driverless cars far off
Pandikuthira said that there are several key trends emerging for the automotive industry, namely around electronification (also raised by Airbus Chief Innovation Officer Yann Barbaux in a move away from hydraulic equipment at its plants), the congestion of cars and the capacity issue of cars constantly moving around.
He said that the key to unlocking, and solving, some of these problems are around the use of data to optimize routes, improve energy efficiency and road capacity. Yet, he warned that car makers can’t do this alone and they will need the support of technology companies.
He said AI was “very much” part of the car of the future, which will resolve around “information gathering” from sensors and cameras already fitted on the car. Deep-learning algorithms, built by the likes of UK start-up Blippar – also on the FT panel – will congregate the data for analyzing the road ahead.
“AI plays a big role because it’s about getting data in from the outside, primarily using cameras…using algorithms to make decisions as to what you should do.”
Nonetheless, if the Nissan product manager was keen to talk up the potential of the connected car, he was rather more circumspect on the future of autonomous cars on the public highways, suggesting that full autonomy may be some years away.
“The fully autonomous is probably a little bit away,” he said, citing Nissan’s own test in Japan last November, which saw an autonomous car travel 120 kilometers with the ‘driver’ holding their hands 5-6 inches away. In particular, he admitted that there are complications legally, over which car hits another.
During the next four years, Nissan is expected to launch vehicles with increased ‘driverless’ capabilities like “multiple-lane control”, which can negotiate hazards and change lanes during driving. The firm says that, by the end of the decade, it will introduce “inner-city” autonomy, allowing vehicles to drive themselves across busy cross roads and intersections.
The firm says the technology will be installed on mass-market cars at affordable prices, with the first coming to Japan in 2016.