The rise of and transition to electrification is changing the way we think about designing, driving and refueling (or bidirectionally recharging) our cars. But for automakers such as the Hyundai Motor Group, there’s another reimagination happening at the manufacturing stage with the potential to reshape the way cars will be built in the future, near and far.
I recently visited the prototype for Hyundai’s manufacturing ambitions, the new Hyundai Motor Group Innovation Center in Singapore, to see how the Korean automaker is leveraging artificial intelligence, flexible manufacturing processes and a high level of automation to rethink how it develops, builds and educates the public about electric cars.
In addition to being a factory where Hyundai EVs are assembled, the Innovation Center is also designed to be a hub where Hyundai’s designers, engineers and external development partners can come together to share ideas surrounding automotive and manufacturing technology. It’s also an area where customers can learn about and experience Hyundai’s electric cars.
There are floors dedicated to collaborative workspaces, an automated hydroponic farm in the lobby growing greens that are served in the cafeteria and a customer experience center on the top floor complete with a rooftop test track where guests can experience Hyundai’s electric cars. The 618-meter (just over a third of a mile) oval track is so large that it extends over the building’s edge and has 37-degree banked turns. Special vibration mounts enable speeds up to around 51 mph without shaking the building or disturbing the sensitive equipment down on the factory floor. It was raining on the day of my visit, so I wasn’t able to go for a spin, but it looks hecka fun.
On my tour, I noticed that the factory itself was much quieter than the dozen or so traditional factories that I’ve toured over a decade and a half covering the automotive industry. I didn’t need hearing protection and we were able to comfortably walk the floor. It’s so quiet that Hyundai was able to plop meeting spaces right in the middle of the factory where engineers, designers and manufacturing specialists can meet to collaborate on how to design future vehicles with automated manufacturing in mind.
That’s partially due to the high level of automation and robotics used, but also because HMGICS is an assembly plant. Body panels, parts, and electric powertrain components are shipped in from external facilities and suppliers and then assembled in Singapore versus, say, Rivian’s factory in Normal, IL where sheet metal is being stamped on noisy megaton presses just on the other side of the room.
I wasn’t able to see the first floor, where automated parts unloading and sorting tie directly into logistics systems at the Port of Singapore. This allows HMGICS to order exactly the parts it needs and precisely track them as they enter the factory, an advantage that will play a larger role as the facility expands the variety of vehicles it builds. However, I was able to get a peek into the brain center of the facility where only around 16 people — with the aid of AI-powered systems and a dizzying amount of data — keep tabs on every conceivable element of the manufacturing process.
Assembly without the line
Owning a car in Singapore is expensive. Just getting the certificate of entitlement that enables you to buy a car can cost thousands of dollars, and that’s before you even pay for the car itself. The city-state is small (only around 36 miles across at its widest) but it’s also one of the world’s wealthiest countries per capita and home to workers in the tech, energy and industrial sectors, so HMGICS’ limited volume of around 30,000 cars per year — only around 10% that of a traditional mass production assembly plant at full swing — is a pretty good fit for the region and allows Hyundai to experiment with flexible manufacturing without a fixed assembly line.
Go into a normal car factory and look up; you’ll probably see a network of rigid overhead rails that moves each chassis through the various phases of the assembly process — from welding to paint to interior installation to final touches and more. There are no rigid lines at HMGICS, rather vehicle shells and components are moved around the factory floor on robotic palettes of varying size that can go pretty much where they’re needed and assembly is broken up into “nodes” that can be bypassed, added to or subtracted from the process depending on the needs of each individual vehicle.
Hyundai’s manufacturing engineers use a digital twin — a virtual representation of the entire factory — to simulate and optimize the path that each chassis takes through the process, speeding up production but also allowing the flexibility to, for example, completely reshape the factory floor, run a half-dozen different types of EVs along the same assembly line or pull individual vehicles aside for bespoke customization.
Even the workers at HMGICS have been augmented. Human factory staff make use of exoskeleton and augmented reality technology to help them work more comfortably, efficiently and safely.
For example, I saw a woman assembling door cards for the Ioniq 5 — a task that can be hard on the back due to the bending required — making use of a passive lower-body exoskeleton that allowed her to walk and move freely, but then instantly half-sit on deployable legs rather than bend. Another worker beneath a raised Ioniq used a spring-loaded arm exoskeleton to reduce fatigue and strain when installing fasteners above his head, while another installer used an augmented-reality display to view information and step-by-step instructions at the next station.
Meanwhile, a cohort of robotic coworkers toil alongside these augmented humans. At one station, a Spot robot dog — from now HMG subsidiary Boston Dynamics — equipped with a camera checks behind a human worker to confirm that the appropriate components have been properly installed before the vehicle moves along. (Yes, it’s a bit Black Mirror, but HMGICS staff tells me that the double check improves quality control.) Elsewhere, a trash can-shaped bot reminiscent of R2D2 dutifully rolls from station to station, reading displays that control the massive robotic arms lifting seats, dashboards, bumpers and center consoles into place, and helping to predict when the big bots will need servicing.
Many nodes are completely manned, so to speak, by robots — such as the automated driver aid calibration station where a half-dozen tiny bots holding black and white sensor targets dance around each outbound Ioniq 5 while the EV’s camera and sonar sensors dial themselves in. Even the parking of completed vehicles is handled by flat robotic dollies that tuck under and lift each car before sliding them precisely and tightly together for storage before shipping out.
Hyundai Ioniq 5-based Robotaxi
Today, HMGICS produces only the Hyundai Ioniq 5 EV but to demonstrate the flexibility of lineless assembly, a portion of the throughput splits off midway through assembly to become Ioniq 5-based Robotaxis bound for operation in approved US markets.
Each Robotaxi is outfitted with around 30 additional sensors — including lidar, radar and cameras — for 360 degrees of precision coverage before its processing hardware is installed in the trunk beneath the floor. Additional pixel-style light segments are added to the exterior to aid visual communication with riders, other drivers and pedestrians and displays are added to the front seat backs for passengers to peruse information about their autonomous ride.
The AI software and hardware powering the Ioniq 5 Robotaxi was developed by Motional, a joint venture between Hyundai and automotive supplier Aptiv, and designed to integrate directly with the Ioniq 5’s power and control hardware for easy manufacture in facilities like HMGICS. After splitting off to receive their extra gear, the Robotaxis are then able to seamlessly rejoin the main assembly queue for the same finishing and quality assurance and final checks as the vanilla EVs.
The flexible factory of the future
According to VP and Head of Hyundai’s Smart Factory Technology Innovation Group Alpesh Patel, the lessons learned from building two variants of the Ioniq 5 will allow HMGICS to add the Ioniq 6 and three more E-GMP-based Ioniq models to its output next year. Next on the roadmap is a new purpose-built vehicle designed around the automated manufacturing process and, eventually, the facility’s flexible factory model may even accommodate an even wider gamut of electro-mobility vehicles — from e-scooters to walking cars, mobility pods, eVTOL aircraft and even bespoke one-off customs. The sky’s the limit as Hyundai fine-tunes its ability to completely reconfigure its factory at a moment’s notice.
Hyundai is also exploring how the compact design and customer facing aspects of HMGIC — a microfactory that’s basically the middle of a dense urban center — can be replicated and remixed around the world to meet the specific e-mobility needs of other markets, perhaps even a city near you.