The benefits of replacing plain old paper with e-paper displays in automotive assembly plants

HD Lee
CTO
The benefits of replacing plain old paper with e-paper displays in automotive assembly plants
Efficiency is at the heart of automation, and that is nowhere more apparent than in the manufacture of automobiles. The Ford Motor Company is widely credited with inventing the moving assembly line, but the concept of moving the assembly, rather than the worker, dates back centuries.

Today, robots have largely displaced the human labourers in a production line and, as these robots are generally rooted in one position, an automated production line really is the only viable solution. The ability of a robot to repeat a task millions of times without variation has driven productivity upwards and pushed waste down. Automotive manufacturers pride themselves on their ecological credentials in the manufacture of vehicles, while efficiency is critical to profitability in such a cost-sensitive market.

Change is constant

Historically, automation works best when there is little or no variation; while a robot may be programmed to perform a wide range of actions in any given sequence, even a small amount of variation introduces the need for change and impacts productivity. However, once again, Ford is pioneering new technologies in this respect, such as using 3D printing and something it calls the Ford Freeform Fabrication Technology to create prototypes faster or enable short-run production volumes.

Consumers love choice, and the ability to order a bespoke vehicle – however slight those differences may be – is a critical part of the new car purchasing process. Unfortunately for the car manufacturers, choice means changes in the production line and, more often than not, those changes may only be necessary for a single vehicle. Keeping track of those optional extras late in the production process is critical.

Even in a highly automated environment like car assembly, overseeing variations in the process can often come down to checking instructions on a sheet of paper and then ticking boxes to show they have been completed. This ‘tried and tested’ approach may work, but is it really the best solution, particularly in a world where change is constant?

Information in motion

Moving from a paper-based system to an e-paper based system would have many advantages. Firstly, an e-paper display can easily be connected to a network, so it can be constantly updated even as the assembly moves through the plant. Secondly, once a process has been completed and ticked off, that ‘tick’ can be sent to the back-office system and recorded electronically, so there is no risk of it not being registered.

A major benefit of e-paper displays is that they are machine readable, easily displaying bar codes or QR codes that can be read by other machines as well as people along the production line. As the assembly moves, the display can update to show its current state, where it expects to go next, or even why it may be in a holding pattern; traditional paper can’t do that.

A significant differentiating feature of e-paper over other forms of display is its ultra-low power consumption, which includes the fact that it doesn’t need any power at all to maintain the information on the screen. This is important in a production line environment, because it means there is no risk of a low battery causing loss of information mid-process, leading to hold-ups.

With an active area of over 238mm by 190mm and only 1.2mm thick, the 12-inch e-paper display would be the ideal alternative to a sheet of paper in a moving assembly environment. It is large enough to display all relevant information at a resolution easily readable from a distance, without becoming an obstacle to man or machine.

The automotive industry recently celebrated 100 years of moving assembly lines, and as we transition towards electric vehicles the industry continues to adapt; e-paper can be part of that transformation and bring many benefits.

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