Manufacturing cars quickly to order could save the European car industry billions and safeguard production, according to an EU project team.
The 'five-day car' initiative is exploring how the industry, founded on the principle of mass production, can move towards meeting customer needs better by building a car to order in less than a week.
CalledIntelligent Logistics for Innovative Product Technologies
(ILIPT) the EU-funded project comprises 27 partners such as Daimler, BMW, Siemens and SMEs and Bath and Cambridge universities, and will publish its findings in June.
'The automotive industry is already moving towards this and we could see cars built this way by 2015,' said one of the project leaders, Glenn Parry ofBath University
His research team believes that eventually customers will walk into a car dealer on a Monday, place an order for a car, and take delivery of the model with all of their specifications by Friday.
Rather than following the traditional practice of manufacturing the body of the car in a single steel shell, ILIPT is examining how to build it from a number of standard, pre-formed modules. The body frame is subdivided into four main modular pieces: front end, engine bay, front greenhouse and rear greenhouse.
The researchers have developed new cold joining technologies to stick the car's high-performance steel body together quickly and accurately. Once the body frame is assembled, the 'bodywork' styling surface is attached. The surface panels may be made from a number of different pre-coloured thermoplastic or thermoset plastic materials.
'People like a shiny car, and with these materials you can do away with the paint shop, which reduces production time,' said Parry.
The cockpit would also be modular so it could be quickly assembled to customer specification.
'Traditionally orders come from dealers, but we want the customer to place the order,' said Parry. The order will be filled out on a computer screen at the dealership and then the system will allocate the manufacturer of each part of the car.
The research team is currently working on an interoperability model that will allow the individual software systems of the dealership, manufacturer and part suppliers to work together. That way everything from a driver's seat to an engine can be ordered and manufactured specifically for a customer's needs.
Parry said this could significantly reduce the carbon footprint of car production because an interoperable system would locate the closest manufacturer for each part.
'This also has economic benefits for the European and US markets which have seen increasing migration of their production overseas,' he said. 'You would have to have large production facilities in Europe and the US. And parts manufacturers would need to be co-located or geographically located near the assembly plants to deliver within time scale.'
Simple, small parts like windscreen wipers, nuts, bolts or fasteners could still be manufactured in bulk from elsewhere and shipped.
'The car industry is massively important to Europe,' said Parry. 'If it all went to India [such as Jaguar and Land Rover] and China it would not only damage Europe's economy but also the society.'
He added that the five-day car concept is something both consumers and manufacturers want.
Parry claimed that the potential savings of £8bn could be passed on to customers, allowing car makers to remain competitive during tough economic conditions.