What electric car makers can learn from Henry Ford

The rebirth of the electric car

This is not the first Golden Age of the electric car. It also had a heyday back in the early decades of the 20th century, as humans tried to harness the natural and applied sciences to push the envelope of technological development. The Ohio-based Baker Motor Vehicle Company, for example, produced electric vehicles back then — over a thousand units per year at its peak, which made it the world’s largest producer of e-cars at the time. The “Baker Electric”, an elegant four-seat luxury saloon, was even used at the White House in 1910. The vehicle has a battery-powered radius of 80 miles and cost 70,000 dollars adjusted for inflation. 

At that time it was not at all clear which propulsion system the automobile industry would adapt as its standard. In 1910, some 40 percent of all vehicles were steam powered, another 38 percent used electricity and just over a fifth were powered by petrol. By 1920 sales for electric cars had begun to fail. There were many reasons for this. For one, Henry Ford brought his Model T with a combustion engine onto the market in 1908, and it would go on to be the best-selling car in the world for many decades. Its simple design was compatible with assembly line production, with as many as two million units of the pioneering vehicle produced in 1925. During that same period the sales price dropped from 21,000 dollars to just 3,400 dollars (adjusted for inflation). The automobile was suddenly affordable for the middle class, and petrol was available cheaply thanks to the discovery of extensive oil fields. 

While the combustion engine would become the worldwide standard, electric motors would fade into the shadows for the remainder of the century. While it was possible to find small, spartan electric cars on the market, their weak batteries and the lack of a sustainable charging infrastructure made them largely impractical. 

Recent years have returned us to breakthroughs like those seen over a hundred years ago by Henry Ford and his Model T — although this time it is electric cars that are benefiting. Drastically improved batteries have extended driving distances to much as 400 kilometres on one charge, while growing mass production of the latest generation of electric vehicles has sent prices tumbling. A Tesla Model 3 costs roughly 35,000 dollars – while a Ford T, the first mass auto, would have cost 21,000 in today's dollars back then in 1908. The production facilities for electrical cars are leading to further advances in automation: ABB robot technology, production automation and digital control are blending together into new factories where man and machine interact like never before.


The factory for electric mobility

Man and machine team together

Over four decades ago ABB released the world's first 100% electric, microprocessor-based industrial robot. ABB robots are today found in all areas of the automotive industry and it seems likely that they will soon be used for serial production of electric vehicles as well. 

Whenever classic auto production needs pressing, forming or welding of the chassis or gluing, sealing and laser soldering of parts, ABB robots are probably involved. This also holds true for the mounting of the drive train as well as sealing and painting — this work is now over 90 percent automated thanks to robots. But the robots aren’t everywhere. Among the final tasks before new vehicles drive of the production line are mounting of the steering wheel, dashboard and rear view mirror, laying of carpet and stowing of the spare tyre. Much of this work is still done by hand, with automation rates below 10 percent. Here too machines are increasingly joining in on the hard work, just in a different way: collaborative robots. Trial versions of these flexible production lines are already in use.

It goes without saying that ABB's decades of experience applying automation to automotive processes is now flowing into the production of electric cars. Since 2016, the list of countries planning to ban new sales of petrol and diesel vehicles between 2025 and 2040 is growing. For auto makers, this means that the transformation from combustion to electrical vehicle is coming, and coming soon. To meet the challenge, they’ll need flexible, robot-assisted production lines capable of ramping up to produce more units of different models. ABB has created its conceptual E-Mobility Factory of the Future as a “one-stop-shop” for the production of electric autos.

Digital factory: how ABB technology will be used for tomorrow’s production lines



For each of these production steps, ABB offers modern, robot-assisted solutions that allow man and machine to work side by side. Beyond this, the Manufacturing Execution System (MES) employs digital technology to make production processes more flexible and synchronised along all participating units of the factory. The robots connect to one another via the ABB Ability cloud product and are controlled by the Internet of Things (IoT), including constant monitoring of their operational status. If unexpected irregularities are observed in either the robots or the control units, countermeasures can be initiated before damages occur. This cuts production downtimes and increases the operating standard for production lines or even entire factories.

All of which makes ABB a natural partner for e-mobility in the automotive industry — where cars will soon be produced in small, diverse batches. It’s a world apart from Henry Ford’s approach: “high volume, low mix” was his motto for producing affordable combustion engine vehicles for the masses.