The next vision for auto plant operations? Robots that cruise the factory floor deciding on their own what they'll do next.
This is the vision of "mobile machinery," and it is a possibility in the coming world that industry thinkers are calling "Industry 4.0," says Fabian Fischer, head of internal processing in Volkswagen AG's research unit for materials and manufacturing.
Industry 4.0 refers to a long-range shift toward integrating traditional manufacturing with big data, or the nearly limitless stores of information companies can accumulate about products, manufacturing and other aspects of their business.
Independently operating robots are just an idea, Fischer says. But it indicates what VW and others will need from machinery suppliers to help implement new manufacturing approaches that are becoming possible.
"If you have a robot on wheels and electricity on board, and the robot is not fixed," Fischer says, "the robot can decide "Now I make this, and afterward I drive to make this,' and the robot can decide what he has to do."
VW began working on Industry 4.0 ideas in 2013 but the work is progressing quickly, Fischer says.
The automaker has finished a prototype car in which each part has radio frequency identification, or RFID, chips or similar technology for traceability.
"We have a prototype car that has in every part information like RFID chips or numbers we can scan," he says. "The car comes to the garage and it has all the information about parts, where it comes from, what happens, what is inside."
That development will be helpful for maintenance, he says.
But the larger motivation behind VW's Industry 4.0 planning is to manage the increasing complexity of its manufacturing network -- with 115 factories worldwide that produce 280 models for 12 brands.
The first Volkswagen Golf had a nine-year life cycle from 1974 to 1983, while the Golf 6 had only a four-year life cycle.
In some countries, VW cars have a two-year life cycle, Fischer points out.
"So the increasingly short life cycle and innovation cycle is another issue we have to solve," he said. "You see the huge diversity of our products."
One future concern as manufacturers plunge deeper into the possibilities of big data is data security, says Reinhard Schiffers, head of machine technology with KraussMaffei Technologies GmbH, a maker of advanced tooling.
"In the future we will have to make sure that the information we are sharing with our customers is safe," Schiffers says.
In the future, he says, a factory operator could tell machines when production needs to start, and the machines will coordinate among themselves to get all the materials and components ready.
"It is really hard to define it right now," he says of where 4.0 might take the industry. "For the near future, I think we will see a lot more communication between machines."