The automotive industry stands at the threshold of a new technological era: One century after the Ford used assembly line production to transform the car into a mass-market product, and three decades after Toyota made its production leaner and more flexible, the modularization of products and production is now considered to be the royal road to success in car manufacturing in the future. As part of this development, the Volkswagen Group considers itself to be a pioneer in a new production strategy with its modular toolkit approach.

The principle is actually a familiar one from the world of children's toys: Just a few basic LEGO building block types can be used to build a variety of structures. Be it furniture or lighting, machine tools or entire power plants —as long as the basic grid of the building components mesh with one another, nearly any combination is possible. And just like with LEGO bricks, the construction kit can be used to fulfil individual solutions.

It is no wonder that the automotive industry uses LEGO blocks (apologies! I mean of course modular technology). Once it became clear that the "world car," once touted as the car suited to all markets around the globe, was in fact a marketing illusion, modularity now shows a promising way to meet divergent customer wishes and needs with cost-effectiveness and efficiency. It is understandable that especially a company like the Volkswagen Group (globally active with many brands and models) is totally committed to this approach. But this is only one aspect that makes modularity so interesting for the car manufacturer.

Intelligent modularization of products and production

Ex-Group CEO Martin Winterkorn* sums it up:

More diversity with less complexity—the modular toolkits systems are evolving into a powerful motor of innovation and a key success factor for the Volkswagen Group.

Increasing diversity while reducing complexity and costs: Volkswagen is approaching this goal through the intelligent modularization of both product and production. The roots of this concept in the group date back almost 40 years. Initially, the focus was on using the same parts in individual VW and Audi models. Production with cross-segment modules then came into use for the first time, starting in 2000. In 2007 the Audi A5 ultimately marked the launch of the first vehicle based on a modular toolkit. The modular toolkits were effective in facilitating this development. The concept is now being rolled out across the group.

Instead of 18 platforms, most group models will henceforth be based on five standardized vehicle architectures. The choice of toolkit depends on the direction of the engine, namely the modular longitudinal toolkit (MLB) and the modular transverse toolkit (MQB). There are also toolkits for mini cars (New Small Family), full-size cars (MSB) and light commercial vehicles (MNB). As Winterkorn says:

Customers also benefit from the modular strategy. Not only can they choose from a variety of models (currently the group offers over 310 models), they can also customize their vehicles more than ever before.

The Golf 7 is one such example, now offering 78 body/engine combinations, 22 colours, three features packages and 70 optional extras.

Individual mobility must become more environmentally friendly and more efficient

By 2018, 75 percent of the model range will already be based on one of these five toolkits.Among the many implications is the fact that up to 4 million units per year will be built on just the highest volume toolkit, the MQB.

VW Chairman Martin Winterkorn emphasizes yet another significant advantage:

Individual mobility must continually become more environmentally friendly and more efficient while still remaining affordable. The conflict between diversity and costs is again particularly apparent here in this area: Anyone wanting to offer every customer the right mobility solution in the future must be in control of the entire range of drivetrains and be able to develop it further. To that end, our development goal from the beginning was to design the modular transverse toolkit for all relevant drivetrain types: everything from the efficient combustion engine to the gas drivetrain to the plug-in hybrid and the electric motor with a view to the fuel cell as well.

This way, tomorrow's customer can even choose the drivetrain. If he or she opts for an electric vehicle, the modular toolkit means a wide range of choices—from the zero-emission VW e-Up! to the Porsche Panamera with hybrid drivetrain.

Modular toolkits: Flexibility in the company and customer acceptance

Using modular toolkits to incorporate new technologies into existing vehicles also increases customer acceptance, a prerequisite for the market success of alternative drive systems. At the same time it creates greater flexibility in the company, because there is no need to start from scratch.

The toolkits mean that the development of new models no longer requires literally reinventing the wheel each time. Modularity fosters less complexity in both development and production.

Other major car manufacturers are working hard to modularize model ranges and processes. The effort to make manufacturing more lean includes the challenge of increasing customer demands. Intralogistics is one potentially costly problem area. Here Kaizen and Kanban philosophies meet their limits, especially when new production lines have to be implemented in existing factories.

Flexibility from product to production

At the same time, the modular scheme is also being applied to the entire production system of the Volkswagen Group. The Modular Production Toolkit (MPB) is standardizing the entire automobile manufacturing process, from press shop to assembly.

What the MQB does for the product, the MPB does for production. Dr.Ing. Hubert Waltl*, Board Member for Production at AUDI AG explains the principle:

The approach of MPB is based on the standardization of production processes and the modularization of production resources. This makes it possible to combine elements with new systems and achieve unprecedented flexibility. The MPB will be used by all factories worldwide as a standardized toolkit and follows the goal of providing the right initially tested module for every requirement.

In this way, planning and production can now be organized more economically and with less risk than before.

With the "Mach 18" strategy, the Volkswagen brand has set for itself the goal of becoming the most innovative volume manufacturer by 2018. The so called "Mach 18 factory" for production and logistics is built upon this strategy.

Modular Conveyor systems in intralogistics

Waltl explains:

The Mach 18 Factory is anchored upon the systematic focus on strategic fields in production and logistics in all control processes. This involves ten fields: quality, productivity, start-up, expertise, team culture, innovation, logistics strategy, comprehensive ergonomics strategy, global production network and especially the field of modular production toolkits.

*The article is largely based on lectures by Prof. Martin Winterkorn and Dr.-Ing. Hubert Waltl at the Munich Management colloquium 2014 on the topic of "Modularization 4.0–using and optimizing diversity."

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Drive for the next generation

Individual solutions on a standardized basis Modular manufacturing also requires modular concepts for intralogistics. The permanent standardization of platforms is crucial to the continuous improvement of processes. In this way, the individual application needs of customers can be fulfilled to a maximum extent while simultaneously keeping the number of required components as low as possible. This is achieved through the extensive standardization of basic elements, which in combination can provide customized solutions for each task.

For example, customers want drum motors with specific speed and torque features. At the same time certain geometric requirements must be accommodated in the installation in the conveyor. This requires a high degree of flexibility for shafts, surfaces and installation lengths, as well as interface requirements for information processing. The possible design of a platform is based on these basic conditions. For example, the internal components of a drum motor can be standardized to a high degree. 

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