Artificial intelligence is having a big impact on the auto industry.
According to Future Market Insights, revenue from sales of autonomous vehicles is expected to reach $70 billion by 2033. But AI-powered self-driving cars aren’t the only change — AI technology is already being incorporated into vehicle manufacturing.
As part of this industry-wide trend, BMW Group is now shifting gears to rely more on AI to create a leaner and more efficient manufacturing process.
Inside BMW’s Spartanburg plant in South Carolina.
Over the past few years, BMW has Upgraded Spartanburg, South Carolina, plant to add new AI capabilities. The factory spans more than 8 million square feet and produces approximately 60% of all BMWs sold in the US, with more than 1,500 vehicles produced daily.
In the body shop, robots weld between 300 and 400 metal studs onto the frame of each SUV. That’s about half a million studs that are inserted every day by machines and are now managed by AI.
Assembly line inside BMW’s plant in Spartanburg.
Further down, AI technology checks to make sure each stud is positioned perfectly, according to BMW Group Manager Curtis Tingle. If a joint is in the wrong place, the system asks the robot to correct it. No human intervention is required.
“It’s a completely closed loop,” Tingle told CNBC. “[AI] Human thought, human manual intervention, is directly out of the equation.”
Tingle said the new technology has dramatically improved efficiency. “We’re achieving five times what we thought was possible before, with what AI is achieving now.”
A BMW worker at the AI stud correction station.
According to Tingle, the AI stud correction laser has already saved the company more than $1 million a year. He said the new technology allowed BMW to remove six workers from the line.
BMW told CNBC that the AI technology is patent pending and developed within the Spartanburg plant.
On the factory floor, BMW Group IT project lead Camille Roberts explains that new AI software is helping to speed up the automaker’s existing inspection processes.
As the SUVs move down the line, 26 different cameras across the floor capture images. That’s when, according to Roberts, “the AI kicks in, identifies problems and flags a human to fix,” thus preventing an incomplete vehicle from being sent out.
BMW’s AIQX camera inspects vehicles.
Roberts told CNBC that before the new AI upgrade, human workers couldn’t check every vehicle to the extent they can now, adding, “It’s not really humanly possible to inspect every single car. … The production numbers won’t meet global demand.”
BMW Group Vice President of Logistics and Production Control Oliver Bilstein said there is still room for BMW’s AI technology to run.
Plant workers wear what Bilstein calls factory scanner devices that measure and take high-resolution images of every centimeter of the factory.
Bilstein said the images are used to create a 3D “digital twin” of the plant, allowing BMW to quickly make adjustments and understand how it will affect production before implementing the change in the real world. BMW factory planners worldwide can access these detailed plans online.
With the help of new AI software, the scanning process takes days instead of months, Bilstein said.
Ultimately, this type of AI technology will be able to learn on its own how to discover and recommend new ways to make the BMW Group’s automated assembly line more efficient, he said.