The disruption the automotive industry has experienced over the last few years has accelerated the adoption of digital technology, including AI, machine learning and 3D perception software. That includes applications used in finished vehicle logistics, a sector that has typically been criticised for lagging in its adoption of technology designed to improve visibility, and provide more accurate data on quality and delivery times.
In the US, ongoing delays to the production of vehicles, combined with problems in finding adequate capacity for the vehicles that are actually made, has led to demand outstripping supply. Dealer inventory is currently around 1.1m units, equating to a 25-day supply, 70% below pre-Covid levels. OEMs are operating on a model that more resembles build-to-order than build-to-stock. That has put greater pressure on the sector to look for support from technology providers that can automate services such as vehicle inspection and yard management.
At this year’s Finished Vehicle Logistics North America conference in Huntington Beach, California Ed Jones, chief commercial officer at vehicle inspection expert DeGould, noted there had been a definite shift in attitude within the sector and OEMs were looking for support and services to make the delivery of their cars more efficient and transparent.
Digital vehicle inspection systems, such as the ones DeGould offers, are automated and run on AI software and computer vision. DeGould’s Auto-compact vehicle inspection module, to take one example, features seven cameras that capture ultra-high-resolution images, together with two dedicated wheel cameras and seven analysis cameras to detect any vehicle damage. Vehicles can drive through the module, helping to increase throughput and save time.
As well as speeding up the inspection process, the technology has the potential to improve the quality and efficiency of the damage detection process, and remove the potential for human error. This is what the industry is now looking for, according to Jones, and companies are eager to learn about what the technology has the scope to do and how to implement it through the vehicle delivery process.
“What we are seeing now is a massive shift in attitude,” he said. “People are more and more coming to us and asking how quick we can get these things in. Despite all the headwinds it has accelerated the need for this technology.”
Hamed Bazaz, director of business development at Seoul Robotics, agreed that services based on the latest digital technology were getting a lot more attention from the finished vehicle sector.
“In the last few years there has been a lot more interest and a lot more investment behind that. It is changing and is changing quickly,” said Bazaz.
Seoul Robotics makes 3D perception software which amalgamates information from different types of 3D sensors. That data is represented in one environmental model and enables users to accurately and safely manage the autonomous guidance of a vehicle in a variety of situations. In the automotive sector the technology has applications at vehicle plants or vehicle distribution centres (VDCs) for the autonomous movement and parking of vehicles. According to Bazaz, the technology saves on labour, makes yard management safer and more efficient, and enables 24/7 operations.
Investment and innovation
Bazaz said that the software-centric technology now on offer to the finished vehicle sector made for a worthwhile long-term investment, something that was helping the shift in attitude to greater take up.
“Software is a lot easier and less capital intensive to update than hardware,” said Bazaz, adding that once the underlying hardware capability was in place the application had durability through software updates.
“You can improve your AI algorithms, improve your detection capability and improve the way that you analyse the data,” he said. “All of that allows you to keep your technology evergreen and keep adding value for the customer for an extended period of time.”
Vivek Sinha, managing partner, at Sphere, which also provides vehicle inspection and monitoring technology, said customers in the automotive sector were asking for more support and it was that demand that was driving its continued innovation.
“They are asking and pushing for more technology to overcome the gap and the challenges of today’s market,” he said. “The market is definitely ready and we see customers engaging companies like us to innovate, and innovate faster.”
Sphere provides customisable vehicle inspection and yard monitoring services. Its Prism inspection pod, which has been developed in the last two years, is custom built according to the environment in which vehicles need to be inspected. The pod is equipped with 4k-10k megapixel smart cameras and an array of sensors that inspect each vehicle in 3-5 seconds, identifying it by VIN and capturing information on quality in real time for encrypted storage in the cloud.
What is critical for the uptake of these new technologies is that they fit seamlessly with the existing environment into which they are fitted. At Seoul Robotics, Bazaz said that implementing its systems at a typical manufacturing site or VDC meant integrating with the existing infrastructure. That meant knowing where the vehicle being monitored was destined and what touchpoints it had to hit on the way, whether being loaded on a ship or diverted for post-production aftertreatment, for example.
“All of this needs to tie in with existing systems, there is no way around it,” he said.
Jones said the same was true at DeGould: “The onus needs to be on us. We have to make [the technology] accessible. We have to create a platform and an integration or KPI where the data can transfer easily.”
Jones said installing the hardware was one thing but it was the software integration that took the time. That required being prepared ahead of time for implementation and working collaboratively with the customer, including teams on the ground involved with finished vehicle management and IT.
That integration is not without its challenges. Legacy systems and processes in automotive can be convoluted and challenging to work around. The practical application of new digital technology to an existing process can reveal how flawed the existing process is, according to Jones. However, greenfield sites being built by new OEMs have the potential to integrate more quickly, and that is true when it comes to electric vehicle production.
With that groundwork done, greater efficiencies are very quickly realised and Jones pointed to the installation of its technology at the vehicle handling ports (as it has at the port of Southampton in the UK supporting BMW).
“You will have multiple OEMs coming through a port and when you put a facility in you have a multitenant situation straight away,” said Jones, adding that the data captured was of use to the port as well, and helped to drive wider efficiencies.
“Instead of having different processes, you can streamline and find efficiencies by running everything through the same system,” said Jones. “As soon as the vehicle is dropped off, or comes off a ship, within a few minutes of getting that data it is a huge win for the port in terms of labour and time. But you need to disseminate that information to the correct parties and keep it secure.”
That scope for one activity to contribute to wider process efficiencies in the outbound supply chain is all part of the digital transformation the finished vehicle sector is going through.
Vivek Sinha said that coordinating and automating the multiple touchpoints in a vehicle yard is technically easier than integrating across the entire supply chain but by providing an open platform and facilitating the flow of data captured to other parts of the supply chain contributed to wider efficiencies.
“One has to be looking at transformation from a process perspective as opposed to one activity or event,” he said.
Jones said there was now a massive opportunity for the finished vehicle sector to embrace the software at its disposal and for OEMs to collaborate and explore more of the potential of the technology with its providers.
“We have to stay at the sharp end in the years ahead and see what is coming next, and ultimately listen to the customer and have the feedback to create what they want us to create.”