A German startup run by a former Audi engineer has received backing for his planned makeover of the assembly-line approach to carmaking introduced by Henry Ford a century ago.
The company, Arculus, wants automakers to abandon rigid production lines and adopt its more flexible platform in which self-driving robots move half-built cars to different sections.
London-based venture capital firm Atomico is among the investors who put in a total of 16 million euros ($17.3 million) to the company.
"Now that we have this funding, it's going to be about broadening the customer base," said Arculus CEO Fabian Rusitschka, who has set up shop in Ingolstadt, which is home to Audi.
Having raised the interest of Audi and other automakers, the next step is scaling up to take on major manufacturing projects. While the coronavirus pandemic has decimated the car industry, the need for social distancing at work could play in Arculus' favor, Rusitschka, 36, said. There's limited space on a traditional assembly line, with fixed machinery packed close together.
"You can't move the workplaces apart from each other, you can barely create any distance," Rusitschka said.
Arculus' system works by moving components on flat self-driving robots, allowing for a two-dimensional production grid where steps can be skipped, or stations moved if need be. If the traditional production line is a conveyor belt, Arculus's system is more like a shopping mall, where every step in the process is a store that can be visited at will, he said.
The move to electric vehicles could also be a boost. With the technology still evolving, automakers will want to keep their options open. That does not suit the traditional car-making set up. "With that long-lasting system, you basically need to decide now what you're going to have for the next 10 years," he said.
Currently, Audi is using the platform for some aspects of pre-production, but Rusitschka said he believes long-term the benefits of modular production will outweigh the costs. Automakers will have to be nimbler and innovate to keep up with EV developments.
"Nobody knows what the future is going to look like," Rusitschka said. "One of the biggest strengths of the modular production system is you can adapt."