Digitalization Drives Manufacturing Innovation

I think I speak for my peers when I say there has never been a more exciting time in the automotive industry. We are seeing unprecedented advancements in technology and materials coming to market in record time. While much of the excitement is around electrification and autonomous driving, an equally important revolution is happening in manufacturing.

Over the past three years, the manufacturing industry has experienced significant challenges. These issues include intense pressure to offset labor shortages through automation, unstable supply chains demanding more inventory visibility to rapidly adjust production plans, and new players entering the industry that disrupt traditional manufacturing solutions. To be successful today, businesses must focus on flexibility, efficiency, and new technology. At ZF, we are focused on two key areas: developing our people and embracing digitalization.

During the past year I’ve spent time visiting production sites in the Americas to engage with our leaders and reinforce the importance of manufacturing in our business. I’m impressed with the commitment to digitalization in our manufacturing facilities; I’ve witnessed firsthand some incredible advancements made across our plants.

With digitalization, we are leveraging our vast repository of business data to make us more agile, in turn improving our processes and products. For example, with the detailed machine data we are now able to collect, we see many opportunities to use artificial intelligence tools to predict and correct problems before they occur.

Additionally, many of our facilities have implemented a daily digital shop floor management meeting, where plant leaders from every functional area use real-time performance data to manage a variety of tasks, including analysis of workload, quality, and material availability. More importantly, they use that dedicated time each day to identify, troubleshoot, and solve pressing issues together.

Connectivity, simulation, and automation also play an important role in our manufacturing facilities and are helping our people be more productive and efficient. We use connected machines to automatically identify performance problems and reallocate resources to quickly solve problems. With digital simulation tools, we can optimize production lines. Collaborative robots (cobots) are accelerating productivity gains with simplified programming—we’re on pace to more than double the number of such cobots this year.

Manufacturing is at an important turning point, but technology will only take us so far. Building the next-generation workforce is equally important. ZF believes in growing its talent from within whenever possible. Recently, we implemented a plant manager development program to help develop future leaders. The 12-month program is a combination of academics, hands-on learning, and networking with current leadership. The program was designed to give participants the diverse skills needed to grow into a plant manager role. Once completed, participants are ready for leadership roles at one of ZF’s global manufacturing facilities.

Earlier this year, we celebrated our most recent graduating class. A key benefit of the program is that participants can bring current challenges from the plants into the discussion and use this network of leaders to develop resolutions. And it creates a strong connection between these leaders that continues long after graduation.

With increasing globalization, the world is getting smaller while the competitive field is growing. I believe continued success in this industry will require an even greater level of innovation, agility, and the willingness to embrace new business philosophies. I firmly believe that with this combination of talent and tools, digital manufacturing is the key to our future success and will usher in a new age of mobility.

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