Agile methods revolutionise vehicle production

Efficiency and precision in production are decisive success factors in the automotive industry. Consequently, every work step and every necessary action on the assembly line is timed to the second. Furthermore, spatial requirements and worker density are also calculated down to the square centimetre. It gets even more exciting when several models and derivatives of a vehicle line are produced on the same assembly line. Integrating additional work steps in such a situation without stopping production, while grappling with increasing space requirements or changing the cycle time is a highly complex challenge. At a large German sports car manufacturer, this was nevertheless unavoidable because a new directive required the additional testing of all connections. In order to cope with this task, it was decided to approach the integration of the necessary new work steps as an agile project. Together with a consulting firm that specialises in complex mechatronic projects, it was possible to integrate the implementation of the new directive during ongoing production.

Additional testing of every single connection in vehicle assembly actually causes an enormous amount of extra work. In adherence to the specification that neither assembly timing nor spatial requirements may be changed, this means using exactly those moments when the individual connections are freely accessible and, at the same time, no other work step is disturbed by the inspection. In view of the fact that several hundred connections are affected per vehicle and that the automatic evaluation of the test results must be integrated into the existing processes just as smoothly as the handling of faulty connections, the extraordinary complexity of the task is easy to understand. The resulting success would prove to be all the greater, given that the project’s demanding implementation, with the help of the agility experts from the Eschborn-based consulting firm CO-Improve, would not only have to go smoothly, but also be wrapped up in a comparatively short space of time.

Agility needs relevance

It was helpful that the Executive Board of the car manufacturer had already concluded a framework agreement with various consultants for agile coaching in 2017 for the introduction of agile working methods, and that a transformation team with members from all important departments already existed. Nevertheless, of those agile pilot projects launched so far, only a few had proven to be a real success. This is not unusual. After all, the introduction of agile ways of working requires rethinking and profound changes at different levels of the company. Unless a project is really important, it often proves very difficult to bring about these necessary changes. In the case of the project “Implementation of the new assembly guideline”, there could be no doubt concerning its relevance for the company. Accordingly, the support from those responsible managers was also great.

Precisely defining requirements with automotive expertise

The Operations department, which was responsible for implementing the new guideline, selected CO-Improve from the pool of consultants, because its consultants were considered to be particularly adept in methodological terms, and experts for demanding tasks. Together with the expert for connection technology in the context of assembly planning – who took on the role of Product Owner – the agile coach immediately set about formulating the requirements in the so-called Product Backlog. Unlike conventional specifications, the Agile Backlog consistently prioritises requirements, in order to render the task’s complexity manageable. The defined requirements and the prioritisation are continuously reviewed during the course of the project and dynamically adapted to the project’s progress. Another decisive factor is the clear and clean formulation of all requirements to be fulfilled.

Concept development at expert level

A newly formed interdisciplinary team then developed an initial concept to integrate the new guideline for checking connections into the production process. In doing so, the team was coached by the CO-Improve consultant in the application of the agile working method Scrum. In addition, the consultant took on the role of Scrum Master, whose primary task is to create the right framework conditions and remove any obstacles.

Identifying and removing obstacles

In this role, the agility experts had plenty to do, especially at the project’s outset. For example, it became apparent that the available work capacities would be far from sufficient to solve the complex task at hand in a reasonable amount of time. In fact, some of the nine development team members were only able to devote 20 per cent of their working time to the project. Although the team showed genuine commitment and continued to come up with ideas to achieve even greater working efficiency, they were unable to meet their interim goals and the desired work progress. Using a so-called Burn-Up Chart, the Product Owner, together with the consultant, made it clear to the stakeholders that, if capacities remained the same, the difference between forecast completion rates (and the work actually done) would inevitably increase from sprint to sprint. The graphic presentation had the desired effect. Thanks to the support from stakeholders, team members were given significantly more working time for the project.

Reaching the goal faster with small steps

This measure paid off. After just six weeks of project work, the first pilot application was able to be started as a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) on a limited section of the assembly line with about 25 connections in ongoing production. Now it was time to analyse how the newly integrated work steps affected production: Was the work route calculation correct? Were the connections actually easily accessible? Was the physical workload reasonable for those checking? Was there enough time for testing and evaluation? Could faults be corrected without disrupting production? In order to clarify all these questions in detail, the development team repeatedly obtained differentiated feedback from all those involved in the production process – such as assembly workers, assembly supervisors, foremen, planners and quality managers – during the 14-day test phase.

Iterative optimisation up to roll-out

On this basis, the concept was revised and optimised. Unlike conventional methods, agile development relies on iterative steps instead of a single concept phase that is then implemented with a “big bang” throughout the whole of production. Accordingly, the test field for this task was expanded step by step and adapted time and again. As early as after the third test phase, the roll-out to the entire assembly was able to take place. Overall, the highly complex task was successfully completed within eight months.

The future is marked by agility

Internally, this agile success has attracted a great deal of attention and positive feedback. This is because, beyond the actual challenge of problem-solving, this project has succeeded in establishing a new quality of solution competence, speed and interdisciplinary cooperation. The well-deserved recognition of this success was also expressed in the fact that the product owner was invited to give a review presentation to plant management.

For the future, the sports car manufacturer is planning a further agile redesign of its processes. Together with CO Improve, the entire assembly line is to be redesigned so that electric cars and combustion engines can be assembled in parallel.