More than 80 percent of all innovations in today’s automobiles are made possible by microelectronics according to Stefan Simon, semiconductor expert at Audi’s Quality Assurance HQ. “All told, a car today includes as many as 8,000 active semiconductors in up to 100 interconnected control units. Every single one of them has more computing power than the first moon rocket.”
Increasingly, it’s all about the data when it comes to modern automotive manufacturing. Computer power, robots and, thankfully, quite a few people are all being used to get cars as near to perfect as possible. Audi has a brand name that is built around quality, which is why it has nearly 2,800 employees working within the Audi Quality Assurance part of the company.
We recently got to experience this incredible development journey at Audi’s vast manufacturing plant in Ingolstadt, Germany. T3 got treated to a comprehensive tour of the five core areas that are all focused firmly on maintaining quality control.
First up was the Master Jig area, which is an aspect of the design and production process that’s been transformed thanks to digital technology. It’s definitely all about the number crunching in this facility with traditional instruments being heavily supplemented by the growth of digitilisation. However, in more simplistic terms, this department is really all about getting things to fit properly.
So, door shutlines are scrutinised, bumpers and other trim components measured relentlessly and all of the resulting data is used to create a finished car that is as near perfect as possible. However, the tolerances are incredibly tight and manufacturing still presents its challenges, even with Audi’s use of modern materials. A good example is something like the new Audi A8’s filler cap, where a combination of aluminium and plastic components work differently together.
It’s the same on the inside, with Audi using its sophisticated Master Jig setup to analyse the fit and finish of touchscreen displays, monitor light leakage and harmonise interior illumination. Again, all of the data collected allows Audi engineers to quickly locate any problem areas and work out a way of addressing the issue. Before digitalization this pre-production analysis used to take days rather than hours. In an industry where time is big money, then the savings are obvious to see.
Secondly, we got an insider look at the Semiconductor Lab, which is an eye-popping, mind-boggling hub of innovation that forms one of the main areas of development in Audi cars. Experts here probe deeply into the innermost workings of the control units. These components have to be robust enough to last up to 15 years; the lifespan of the car, compared to just two years for something like a smartphone. Temperature differences, moisture and vibrations are all things that can be the kiss of death for these parts of a car, so the attention to detail here is vital.
One of the most impressive and visual examples of the Seminconductor Lab output is the taillight units it has developed. Audi was first to use OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) technology in its 2016 TT RS and the new A8 model features a continuation of this development.
Audi engineers explained that in each OLED unit, two electrodes – at least one of which is transparent – incorporate numerous extremely thin layers of organic semiconductor materials. A low voltage causes these layers, which are 200 times thinner than a human hair, to illuminate. The result is a super crisp and clear taillight that is a thing of beauty to look at.
After that there was a glimpse into the fascinating world of Audi’s Materials Engineering department, which is home to some amazing kit costing in the region of about 2 million Euros. Central to this is a Focused ion beam (FIB) analysis tool, a hugely sophisticated machine that delivers vital information on the make-up of new components. It’s a combination of an image scanning electron microscope and an ion gun, the latter of which burrows a hole into material with widths of 50 to 100 micrometres. This is so small it’s invisible to the naked eye.
The electron microscope then captures high-resolution, cross–section images of materials and components that can identify any potential quality issues. We were shown an example of a touchscreen where delamination had occurred. Audi uses this analysis technique for a wide range of materials and also to examine surface technology, such as anti-corrosion coatings and paints. Metal, glass, ceramics, polymers and even leather are all analysed in the same way. Audi also uses the technique for examining the compositional structure of its CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) tanks as used in a model like its A4 Avant g-tron.
We also got to see inside the Shakedown Testing area, which focuses on pre-series models in a bid to check the durability of connected functions. This is a process that starts about half a year before production, with every new model being driven in a raft of different scenarios via 17 different stations in all four corners of the globe. Tests are carried out in a variety of climate zones, with temperatures ranging from -30 to +50 degrees.
Audi says that around 600 of its pre-production vehicles are driven over 50,000 to 100,000 kilometers (31,068.6 – 62,137.1 mi) in this way. Some of the cars are driven as many as 200,000 (124,274.2 mi) kilometers over a two to three-year period. Data loggers inside the car feed back all of the information captured over this time, allowing Audi engineers to closely examine everything from component quality and durability through to interior acoustics and how well connected systems are able to endure the rigours of daily driving over time.
Finally, the tour rounded out with a look at the Service Technology aspect of the Audi business. This is where Audi sends and receives data to and from its globally connected worldwide network of Technical Service Centres (TSCs) that includes 128 importers and an array of partners. There are 1,800 of the latter in Germany alone. Having an arrangement like this allows for aftermarket quality control too, with any knocks, noises or vibrations being detected, reported and resolved after being logged from anywhere in the world.
Audi has a specially developed Car Asyst App that allows the detection of faults on the go using nothing more than a smartphone. So, everything from minor rattles to unusual buzzes can be easily and quickly located with the resulting data being pinged back to Audi headquarters in Ingolstadt. The whole connected car scenario will only make this sort of fault detection much swifter in the future and allow tweaks to be made to vehicles much more rapidly than before.
“We are moving from pure component analysis to a holistic system view. In doing so, we are increasingly turning to virtual and digital methods,” said Werner Zimmermann, Head of Audi Quality Assurance. “We are moving away from checking and towards controlling.” Welcome to the future, folks.