Industry 4IR and flexibility: myth or legend? How new technologies are changing automotive production processes

Type de publication:

Conference Paper


Gerpisa colloquium, Detroit (2020)


Industry 4IR and flexibility: myth or legend? How new technologies are changing automotive production processes

Guendalina Anzolin
University of Urbino and IIPP University College London

The introduction of new technologies is already shaping new dynamics in manufacturing sectors. The automotive industry has always been a fertile field for the introduction of new production technologies -even and more so with automated technologies. The emergence of 4IR technologies, and their embeddedness in their production structure e.g. the smart factory, calls for a deeper analysis of how these technologies are reshaping process, product and labour dynamics. This contribution intends to examine the effects of new technologies, with a privileged focus on industrial robots, on automotive production processes. More specifically, this contribution focuses on the two concepts of flexibility and continuous vs batch production processes, how the concept of flexibility is evolving with the deployment of new technologies and what is the impact of new technologies on possible changes along the type of production lines automotive companies set up. The analysis of our data led to first interesting results on differences along the value chain, especially between final assemblers (OEMs) and suppliers. We see that what is true inside the OEMs, may be different for suppliers. The organisation of production differs along the value chain due to cost, power and production structures and these peculiarities make even more important to unpack different processes and see where the industry is going.

Purpose – Research Question
Specifically, and with a focus on robotisation, this methodology allows to disentangle three main research questions: i) what are the main drivers behind robots’ adoption? ii) what are the main implications for automotive production processes? i.e. does the technology push towards continuous or batch processes? Is it commodity and/or value chain specific? iii) Is flexibility an objective when companies introduce new technologies?

This study draws on a four months period research of the automotive industry in South Africa with a focus on technology adoption. The use of a qualitative in-depth methodology allows to analyse mechanisms behind the introduction of new technologies, and their impact on production processes. We collected more than 35 semi-structured interviews, being able to access six out of seven OEMs present in the South African context and a number of suppliers manufacturing different commodities at different stages of the value chain. The semi-structured interviews were conducted through open-ended questions with emphasis on the specific topics of technology adoption. The selected interviewees are either part of the manufacturing division or in charge of plants direction and they are all considered very knowledgeable on automated manufacturing due to their specific engineering background and several years of experience.


The analysis of our interviews revealed three main findings. First, there is a different approach of OEMs and suppliers in terms of production processes restructuring with new technologies. OEMs tend to aim for rigidity in their production processes and they want to maintain (or recreate) buffers between different station in their production lines. They need to avoid with all means that one machine downturn could stop the entire line. On the contrary, suppliers are still looking to reach economies of scale and, when possible, new technologies help them to coordinate a continuous process with less degree of energy consumption and material waste. Second, OEMs are becoming plant-model specific. Our interviews with system integrators companies revealed a general tendency towards plant standardization where each plant tends to focus on the production of one or two model platforms, confirming the rigidity element. Third, flexible automation seems a statistical mirage, as it increases complexity in such a way that cannot be easily managed.

Practical and theoretical implications
The adoption of new technologies, and the complexity embedded in their use and deployment, has importance consequences in terms of what countries can do and to which extent. The existence of productive capabilities and the eco system ability to engage and innovate beyond the mere adoption of technologies is crucial. Our findings lead to several policy implications. First, companies that engage in the adoption of new technologies have to have high financial and production capabilities. Buying a machine is the first small step that needs to be followed by integration system and engineering capabilities. Second, new technologies are an important channel through which local suppliers can upgrade their position in their value chain -especially in emerging market- but this will only happen if they are ready to adopt machines that may be requested by the OEMs. Third, although appealing, the idea of leapfrogging does not seem to find empirical evidence, especially in light of the fact that new technologies require pre-existing capabilities for their adoption, use, maintenance and innovative deployment. A final remark is that, according to our findings, automotive companies – especially OEMs- are moving towards model specific plants and this is likely to have profound consequences both on the purely technological and geographical dynamics of the value chain.

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