In the late 1800’s, Christian Schmidt moved his knitting machine factory to Neckarsulm in Southwest Germany. The company was named NSU for the city in which it was located. Soon the factory shifted focus to building bicycles and then, within the first five years of the 1900’s they began manufacturing motorcycles and cars. After World War II, many German automotive companies were struggling to find a place in a new market not dominated by war production. As part of the restructuring of Volkswagon, Auto Union, and Audi, NSU and their factory were absorbed to create a new vision of Audi.
Audi is now recognized as one of the top luxury car manufacturers in the world. The Neckarsulm site is Audi’s second primary factory and is responsible for manufacturing the brand’s high end models. The city of Neckarsulm is home to some 26,800 people, 16,935 of whom are employed at the Audi factory. Audi has always prided itself on incorporating the latest technology in their work. Audi’s slogan is “Vorsprung durch Technik”, which translates to “Being Ahead through Technology”. This past summer Audi proved just how much they use technology to get ahead by initiating a drone program to help day to day activities at the Neckarsulm factory.
As of 2019, the Neckarsulm site has produced over 177,209 automobiles such as the R8 and A6 models. It is also the home of Audi’s luxury all electric e-tron GT set to hit the market sometime in 2021 for around $74,800 to $81,800. Needless to say, the factory’s parking lot is packed with cars just waiting to be sent out to dealerships around the world. Navigating the lots to find the exact vehicles meant to be sent to specific dealerships can be a time consuming undertaking. Locating each car takes a surprising amount of planning. In order to expedite the process, Audi has designed a custom drone to locate each individual automobile.
Every vehicle Audi makes comes with an RFID (radio frequency identification) chip to use for identification purposes before being sold to customers. RFID chips use radio transmissions to provide a wide range of information. For Audi, the RFID chips provide all of the vehicle’s permanent information such as make and model, date of assembly, and intended destination. According to a release from Audi, “The drone uses an RFID reader to read out every vehicle while flying directly over the dispatch area and saves the GPS position identified. As soon as the flying device has landed, the data is transmitted to a database via Wi-Fi automatically. After the flight, the result is then displayed on a digital map for the employees.” Rather than spending valuable time searching through massive car lots to locate individual cars, the drone locates and saves the car’s exact locations in a matter of minutes.
The drone is a hexacopter, meaning it has 6 rotors to propel it. A map of the facility is saved on the drone’s onboard computer. A specially trained operator dispatches the drone with preprogrammed flight courses. Essentially, the pilot is just there to oversee the drone and intercept if anything were to go awry. The drone autonomously flies at a height of 32ft over the lots. When the RFID reader locates the chip it has been programmed to find, the drone autonomously lands. Once each vehicle has been located and pinged with GPS coordinates, dispatchers can rapidly collect the cars to be shipped out.
Each drone gets a safety check before being used. The batteries are fully charged and monitored for any temperature variations. All software systems are reviewed, including the drone’s weather sensors. If weather conditions are not ideal or there are any hardware or software concerns, the drone remains grounded. Even with having to do all of these checks, and in the event of a drone not being able to be used, this new program is saving the Neckarsulm site countless hours. As Steffen Conrad, project manager in the area of Innovation Management at the Audi site in Neckarsulm stated, “The fast locating of the vehicles creates even higher process quality and is a further stepping stone on the path to digital production. The drone provides support from a completely new perspective. We will now share our experiences with other Audi sites and within the VW Group.” Clearly, Audi has become experts at utilizing innovative technology in all aspects of automotive production.