Goodbye Spreadsheets, Hello Industry 4.0: Continental Standardizes Manufacturing Processes

Richard Howells

Continental is one of the world’s largest producers of automotive components for passenger and commercial vehicles.

The company develops pioneering technologies and services for sustainable and connected mobility of people and their goods. Founded in 1871, the company offers safe, efficient, intelligent, and affordable solutions for vehicles, machines, traffic, and transportation. Products include internal-combustion, hybrid, and electric power trains, injection, chassis, and brake systems, and innovative electronic systems for connected cars.

With about 245,000 employees in 60 countries and markets worldwide, Continental is a truly global organization, but when the company wanted to standardize manufacturing processes and seize the advantage in the area of smart manufacturing and Industry 4.0, it had the good sense to start small.

A test case for digital transformation

One of the company’s business units is acting in the field of air-spring technology – making the vibration absorbers used in cars, trucks, rail vehicles, and industrial machinery. Operating worldwide, this business unit is now serving as a test case for digital transformation.

The project at Continental is led by Hendrik Neumann. He says its air-springs unit ran multiple manufacturing execution systems from different vendors. “We had a lot of manual process steps,” he says. “A lot of paper and spreadsheets, too. There was no real-time global visibility into manufacturing.”

This state of affairs also impacted workforce staffing. Non-existent support for multiple languages made it difficult to move employees around. At the same time, Continental was in competition for suitable, highly qualified personnel, such as engineers with the skills to maintain and further develop a highly customized, heterogeneous system landscape.

The journey to the smart factory

What Continental sought was a single, standardized manufacturing executions system with comprehensive functionality, capable of digitalizing shop-floor processes while running on a global scale. As processes varied across plants and locations, Continental also wanted flexible configuration for modeling the way air springs get made from plant to plant.

Integration was important. “We wanted to integrate with our ERP application and the in-memory computing database – both of which we run as a company,” says Neumann. “We also knew that our transformation would pivot on machine integration and data visibility, which is why we wanted a bi-directional flow of information – from machines to the system and back again.” This required a system that supports Internet of Things (IoT) technology for digesting, managing, and analyzing machine sensor data – and using this data to automate processes.

The ultimate objective is nothing short of the smart factory. Neumann talks about paperless and spreadsheet-less processes, data visualizations that reveal insight, and intuitive interfaces that minimize training. “We want KPIs that report on automated processes so that our teams are free to focus on other activities,” he says. “We’re also aiming for analytics on demand, integrated with business processes, so that we can take action in the here and now. More sensing and responding, less meeting and planning.”

Small means small

This is a solid vision – but first, Continental needed to move forward with the new manufacturing execution system. Continental chose to deploy a manufacturing execution application.

According to Neumann, Continental decided to focus the implementation on the five facilities responsible for the majority of production. These include its Hannover and Hamburg plants in Germany as well as plants in Mexico, Hungary, and Turkey.

If starting small was a guiding principle for the implementation, Neumann’s team executed according to plan. “At first, we focused our efforts on a single machine in a single production area of our plant in Hannover, Germany,” Neumann recalls. “From there, we were iterative, building on successful go-lives in succession.”

Eventually, the team was up and running on numerous machines spanning a complete production process for air springs in the Hannover plant. “Based on our efforts in Hannover,” says Neumann, “we formed a template for implementing elsewhere.”

Plants serving Continental’s air springs business run a variety of production processes. For this reason, Neumann and his team are following a process-by-process approach rather than plant-by-plant. “When one production area is moved to the new system, we replicate it across facilities,” Neumann says.

Configuration first

One goal for Continental is to keep to the standard code base as much as possible. This will help minimize complexity and maintain the ability to consume future innovations based on the standard.

Thus, when it comes to meeting unique needs for individual plants (needs that may have to do with regulatory compliance or serving niche markets, for example), Continental has remained committed to configuration over customizations.

“We’ve found that for the vast majority of cases, we’re able to model the process in the software,” says Neumann. “In the rare cases where we’ve had to develop customized code, we’ve done it in a standardized way so that the same customizations are reused across plants.”

Standardization and transparency

Today, while Continental is still in the process of rolling out its new manufacturing execution system, the company is already bringing its vision for Industry 4.0 into sharper focus. Digitization of the shop floor is now underway. “IoT sensors now connect our machines to our system and processes,” says Neumann. “And all of it is based on a foundation of standardization and transparency.

Standardization can be seen as a synonym for simplicity. By bringing uniformity to processes across plants and locations, Continental’s new manufacturing execution system reduces landscape complexity and, thus, costs. This makes it easier to shift manufacturing workload to different plants – helping to maximize the productivity of employees who can now jump from process to process (rail, trucks and buses, industrial machinery) with minimal training.

The system’s rollout has been standardized, too. The template approach speeds implementation by introducing standard functionality across all plants – while still accommodating unique circumstances with flexible configuration. “Our templates are like Legos,” says Neumann. “We design the process once, and then implement it in pieces. If a piece needs to be added to meet local needs – a rare occasion – we hardly break our stride.”

Transparency can be seen as a synonym for data visibility. At Continental, improved data visibility means global track-and-trace capabilities – down to the individual product level. “We put rubberized labels on all of the parts,” says Neumann. “I can tell you when the part was made, which plant produced it, what materials were used, and much more.”

Uniform data also adds to the transparency. Based on a single source of manufacturing truth, Continental can visualize data from KPIs to better understand what’s happening on the shop floor in real time. It can also generate standardized reports – all within the system without the mess and complexity of spreadsheets.

“Spreadsheets are probably the number one manufacturing execution systems in the world,” Neumann jokes, “but this is no way to get to Industry 4.0. Today, we have a single version of manufacturing truth that allows us to compare plant to plant and understand exactly where we stand.”

Next stop, Industry 4.0

All of this is a good start on the route to Industry 4.0, but what are the next steps in Continental’s journey? Topping the list is predictive quality. “With machine learning, we can detect quality issues before they impact production,” says Neumann. “This can save us tremendous resources – while also improving the customer experience with our products.”

These are the kinds of moves that will continue to push Continental toward becoming an intelligent enterprise in an Industry 4.0 world. To learn more, download the IDC report “Leveraging your intelligent digital supply chain” and follow me @howellsrichard.


About Richard Howells

Richard Howells is a Vice President at SAP responsible for the positioning, messaging, AR , PR and go-to market activities for the SAP Supply Chain solutions.