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Smart factory for smart vans: Mercedes-Benz takes a new approach to manufacturing for the production of its latest range of electrified Sprinter vans.

Mercedes-Benz Vans is no stranger to the intelligent production of light commercial vehicles, as it has been employing the latest in digital manufacturing at its van product plants for a number of years already. Now, the van division of the Daimler brand is taking digitalisation to the next stage.

For the forthcoming start of production of the new model of the popular Sprinter van, Mercedes-Benz is bringing new connected series-production technologies online. The reasons behind this are increasing requirements on flexibility and efficiency.

One aspect of this decision is the increased number of variants available of the Sprinter as a result of the demand for electrified models. In addition, the global production network of Mercedes-Benz Vans has been utilised near capacity for years and sales are rising continuously. Finally, employees also benefit from the increasing digitalisation in production by being relieved of routine tasks. This gives them more time for higher-end tasks.


Between 2017 and 2025, Mercedes-Benz Vans will invest more than [euro]200 million in the expansion of intelligent production.

According to Frank Klein, head of operations at Mercedes-Benz Vans, the digitalisation of the Sprinter plant in Ludwigsfelde near Berlin represents a new milestone on the road to full connectivity.

Klein stated that Mercedes-Benz Vans had already accomplished a great deal in recent years with the paperless factory, self-driving transport systems and a host of other projects. "As part of our 'IntelligentProduction@VANS' strategy, we are now setting another milestone on the road to the fully connected 'factory of the future' for more efficiency and flexibility," he says. "We want to realise potentials throughout the entire production process with technology such as RFID. Our production operations around the world are to be fully digitalised by 2025."


For employees in logistics and production, it has been a long-pursued goal to know exactly where a particular component is at any given time. The benefits are obvious: such information allows them to respond flexibly to changes in the sequence, such as those caused by delays in certain areas. In addition, they always know the current warehouse stock.

Quality assurance employees are consequently also always informed whether the right component was installed in the right vehicle. All that is already a reality in the Mercedes-Benz Ludwigsfelde plant.

As part of a pilot phase, contactless RFID technology (radio-frequency identification) is used to track and identify the door mirrors and seats automatically wirelessly. This happens from the moment they are received to the time the Sprinter rolls off the lines.

The project is being implemented in close co-operation with the Fraunhofer Institute for Factory Operation and Automation (IFF). The goal in Ludwigsfelde is to digitally connect up to 40 parts with the production system via RFID in the next few years. With the ramp-up of the new Sprinter, the technology will become an integral part of series production in Ludwigsfelde. Other locations of Mercedes-Benz Vans are also to be equipped with this technology.


"New digital technology helps relieve our highly qualified staff of routine tasks, such as documenting work steps," says Klein. "They have extensive experience and know-how in van manufacturing and they should be allowed to use this in their day-to-day work."

In the past, Ludwigsfelde employees had to manually and repeatedly scan barcodes on the mirrors and seats at various workstations in addition to their actual production job. RFID eliminates a total of seven non-value work steps per vehicle for these two components alone. RFID consequently relieves the employees of this routine task and, thanks to automatic checks, gives them peace of mind knowing they installed the right parts.


Starting far outside the factory gates, RFID tags are applied to the components by the suppliers. They are the first to benefit from the advantages of the technology in their own logistics and production operations and are able to identify and track parts wirelessly.

To track components with these RFID transponders, readers are located at key points within the logistics and production operations. The wireless contact is established by radio waves generated by the readers. The waves power the chips and thereby prompt them to send their information.

RFID also offers advantages in after-sales, when the vehicle later is in customer hands. It allows service employees to use information stored in databases to retrace which parts are installed with ease.


RFID has extended influence at Ludwigsfelde, as it is also used in the field of automatic equipment control.

Ludwigsfelde has been using automated guided vehicles (AGV) since 2012 and currently has around 20 of them. They are controlled through RFID transponders embedded in the factory floor, which supply driving commands. Ten more AGVs will be used and additional routes will be developed with the start of production of the new Sprinter.

The AGVs communicate with each other via Bluetooth to coordinate their actions autonomously. This ensures smooth traffic flow even when several AGVs cross paths. Up to now, simultaneous co-ordination was only possible between a few vehicles. By the end of the year, the first vehicles are to be able to operate freely and thus flexibly in the buildings thanks to optical sensors. Currently, the AGVs still follow predetermined paths. The AGVs of the first generation are also able to recognise obstacles such as forklifts or pedestrians via laser scanning. In this case, they stop automatically.


The AGVs and RFID environment require a highly effective IT infrastructure. A lot of data must be acquired, processed and provided to other areas in real time.

For example, the RFID data are sent to Equipment Monitoring, Production Control, Quality Inspection and Parts Scheduling departments. Experts from Mercedes-Benz Vans have now developed a completely revised IT architecture together with partners. The central element is a "data highway", which all systems can access at the same time.

In addition, the different IT platforms of the plants worldwide will be harmonised to ensure a global exchange can take place. Furthermore, the architecture makes it possible to quickly add new digital applications--similar to the app principle of smartphones. This means that once the RFID pilot project is completed successfully, other plants will be able to use the finished software immediately. Mercedes-Benz Vans will gradually roll out the new IT architecture globally starting next year.


Currently, some 100 technology and IT experts at Mercedes-Benz Vans' headquarters in Stuttgart and plants in Germany, Spain, Argentina and the USA are working on more than 20 projects on intelligent production. The global teams co-operate closely in flat hierarchies across national and specialist unit boundaries.

Employees from Logistics, Quality Assurance, Engineering and IT are already part of the project teams at the start of the planning phases. The relevant experts also involve production employees early to ensure the practicality of projects from the start. Intelligent production is a component of employee qualification and the apprenticeship programme as well.
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Publication:Environmental Engineering
Date:Dec 1, 2017
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