In an effort to further maximize prevailing “parts when they’re needed” logistics management of factories, Spanish car manufacturer SEAT is testing drones to make deliveries of components to, and around, its assembly lines.
The current trial phase uses drones of varying sizes to transport parts for its Martorell plant near Barcelona. Inaugurated in 1993, the gigantic complex – which SEAT says is as large as 400 football fields – plays home to 11,000 employees who produce about 2,100 autos each day. As a means of cutting down on storage costs of components without undermining their availability, SEAT is turning to automated UAVs to not only deliver parts from external suppliers to the facility when they’re needed, but also zip them around assembly lines once on site.
The strategy was first kicked off in 2019 when the company had a specific kind of steering wheel delivered on demand from a supplier’s center about two kilometers away. Flying at speeds of 40 km/h and an altitude of 95 meters, the drone made the trip in four minutes – part of an order-to-installation process that took 15 minutes total. In addition to being built with a large load capacity, the autonomous drone was fitted with six motors, three GPS modules, six batteries, and three inertial measurement units. By deploying it as SEAT did, the UAV eliminated the usual costs created by storing large deliveries of supplier parts at the factory awaiting their use.
The evolution and expansion of that system was so encouraging that SEAT began testing drones within the Martorell factory itself. The initial objective of that was to exploit UAVs’ vertical aerial mobility to free space and traffic on production floors by flying relatively lighter components to different areas where they’re needed. It’s hoped that continued success of the program will eventually allow the craft to autonomously transport parts to assembly workers ready to fit them onto cars.
To get there, however, the current trials of limited numbers of drones will need to be extended to entire autonomous fleets. SEAT technicians have already put in countless hours of mapping, programming, and test flying UAVs to permit their sensors to detect landmarks around the plant, avoid unexpected obstacles, and deal with an array of irregular situations.
The hope is to generalize that activity to the point where different kinds of drones are delivering components to the factory, then directly into the hands of employees at the precise moment they need to be added.
Given the progress already made – and the stakes involved – SEAT vice president of production and logistics, Christian Vollmer, says failure of the drone project isn’t an option.
“Drone transport is going to revolutionize logistics, as for example in the case of SEAT, where it will reduce parts delivery time by 80%,” says Vollmer. “With this innovation, we are boosting Industry 4.0 and will be more efficient, agile, and competitive, as well as much more sustainable.”