Scanning with electronic eyes to streamline the finished vehicle supply chain

Since the birth of the car industry there have been disagreements as to who is responsible for damage or missing parts on finished vehicles. Now a camera-based system can review and objectively ascertain damage liability from almost any angle in seconds, drastically speeding up vehicle inspection and the claims management process as Simon Duval Smith reports

The Auto-scan system from technology company DeGould, uses a series of high-resolution smart cameras in conjunction with intelligent lighting and rapidly moving doors to scan vehicles in around 5 seconds – a process that can take as much as five minutes with a manual inspection.

Ed Jones

Ed Jones

A reliance on manual inspections for claims management can be slow and inefficient. Surveying tends to be limited to daylight hours, which hinders operational effectiveness. The new Auto-scan booths offer consistent reliability and work effectively in all weather conditions.

The background of the Auto-scan is explained by Ed Jones, CEO of the company: "The product idea started out in the car rental sector after the founder Dan Gould witnessed an argument between a customer and a rental agent over whether the damage on the vehicle was there before the rental or not, and thought there must be a better system. Product development had already started for the rental car market but it was Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) Finished Vehicle Distribution who actually knocked on the door and pointed out that the product could be really useful at the end of the production line where the OEM hands the car to the supply chain and wants to know, 'Is that fault or damage a warranty issue or is it the responsibility of the supply chain?'.

"We worked hard to get the system right; we had feedback on earlier versions such as: 'These images aren't quite good enough, we can't quite see the tiniest defects on this', and 'We need to get it to a point where it is capable of literally replacing the people that are currently at the end of the line doing the inspection, so they can be redeployed to more use'. The first Auto-scan has been fully operational at JLR’s Solihull Plant for the last five years, and for the last two years or so and it's been the primary inspection process, having removed the manual inspections at the handover. It's a critical part of their supply chain. They've since rolled it out to their other sites in the UK and Europe. We processed their millionth vehicle earlier this year which we recently celebrated with them and all that has led to other OEMs following their lead and adopting the technology".

Developing the Auto-scan system

Jones explains the development of the system as evolving organically, and by some simple logic. "We thought that as we were able to capture great images of a vehicle, why don't we start analysing those images and automatically identify if there is damage or if there's missing parts; and even if the specification is wrong. It was a logical next step to go into all areas of a customer's supply chain. At Southampton port we now have five booths in different locations at the port. Some are to handle imports and some for export. JLR have embraced the Auto-scan booths because they realise the added benefits they can achieve in their global port process."

Manual inspection of cars is subject to normal human frailties as Jones tells me: "Because of the subjectivity and human error only a percentage of damage is often found, particularly in poor conditions or in more difficult areas like underbody and roof. We also learnt that some vehicles would sit for two or three days before an inspection so there's still an element of doubt over who caused any damage that is found in the traditional way.”

So just how accurate and indisputable is the scanned evidence, I ask Jones. "Because we capture an exact high definition image of the condition of the vehicle at the time it's pretty undisputable. The total image capture is now close to 2 giga-pixels. We can then review the images, which were taken in ideal and consistent lighting conditions, and as a result, we can ascertain where damage occurred in the chain.”

"Where it's getting really exciting is the recent introduction of AI or artificial intelligence, to automatically analyse those images and assess the data. This further advances the solution for our partners, removing more human error and delivering real bottom-line savings”

Savings in the supply chain

I ask Jones what he feels the system really means to OEMs and other parties in the supply chain, in terms of cost savings. He says, "Some of the savings are softer benefits but most are more definite and calculable. A percentage of damage gets charged back to warranty, or enters the supply chain when it perhaps shouldn't have. If a fault or damage is detected further down the supply chain, the system allows rapid review of the images taken, all the way back to the end of the production line. This allows the OEM to identify and correct in-plant production processes; and in the same way, provides a logistics company with information to improve their handling process.

Joining the dots

With the mention of AI comes the question of the connectivity of booths located many miles, or even hundreds of miles apart. They are connected in several ways as Jones explains: We have what we call Auto-scan, where the vehicle enters a booth, either on a conveyor at the end of the production line, or as a drive-in system in the inspection area often before any transport protection is added to the vehicle. The next logical place our system is used is at the outbound port, which in the JLR case is exactly where the Wallenius Whilemsen booths are in Southampton. On the other side of the same port we digitally inspect BMW and mini imports off vessel and before and after their PDI. For them, it is an invaluable quality check, at the point at which the shipping line hands the vehicle over to the port terminals and before they are given to the trucking companies. With a growing network of global ports installing DeGould auto-scans, we create a ‘digital vehicle passport’ in our dashboard portal so customers can see the quality and condition of their vehicle right through the supply chain. 

Handovers and liability

We return to the importance of clear and defined handover points, and how they need to be carefully chosen to ensure the real benefits of scanning booth technology are achieved, as Jones says. "If you've got the images at the right checkpoint then that's the handover from a liability point of view. We work with our partners to identify the correct points and this allows them to capture the data they require to assign responsibility for improvement action.”

The future of scanning technology

Jones tells me a couple of gems of information about DeGould's future, "We have just had significant investment from the US and I am sure that will start opening up opportunities to work with more carmakers. We are ambitious to grow and are very confident our system can deliver benefits throughout the vehicle supply chain: from OEMs to logistics companies, ports and vehicle remarketing operators. We are on the verge of opening an operation in the US, potentially a huge market for us, and we have already had a great deal of interest in what we are doing. The AI capabilities of the new systems are gaining huge interest and I feel most OEMs and operators now agree this type of inspection is the future”. 

The BMW experience - scanning the Ultimate Driving Machine

Andrew Crackles, Transport Quality and Shipping Manager at BMW UK explains how the carmaker has chosen to invest in its own scanning system.

Crackles is based at the OEM’s Thorne offices in South Yorkshire, in the north of England. BMW has two consolidation centres, one at nearby Killingholme, and one at the port of Southampton on the country’s south coast.

Crackles is based at the OEM’s Thorne offices in South Yorkshire, in the north of England. BMW has two consolidation centres, one at nearby Killingholme, and one at the port of Southampton on the country’s south coast.

He says that, “We use the DeGould booths, in the UK only at present, at the end of our supply chain”. As a booth is situated at a fixed location I wondered if this limited it usefulness. He says: “Yes, putting a booth in place can create its own limitations; where you have a port where you want to load from several different berths, depending on where ships come in, if you put one booth in one location, you then limit yourself as to where you could ideally land vehicles. But there is no doubt about the real advantages of the Auto-scan system; you get reliable, repeatable scanning in a 'sterile' environment all the way through that supply chain.”

Sharing scanning booths - the way forward?

With an exciting new technology such as the DeGould Auto-scan, it comes to my mind that it could be shared on an ‘open source’ basis, to bring down the cost to each OEM and save space at busy ports and terminals but Crackles says there could be challenges. “The booths that we have are exclusive to us, but for example, Wallenius in Southampton are planning to put additional booths in the common user pads, to be used by multiple manufacturers, on a different berth to that which we use”.

Paying and playing

As to who should pay for the scanning booths, Crackles says that the port operators naturally want to own the booths, "They will want to drive the programme, to improve their own efficiency, but of course they would always consult with their OEM customers because we have particular processes in place to capture damage that occurs along the supply chain. Any process that deviates from that would need our 100% approval. Some other carmakers use the scanning at the end of their production line so they might view this differently to us; at BMW UK we do not use it until we unload a ship and prepare to move cars by road or rail, or prepare them in a vehicle processing centre."

BMW UK have paid for the booths that they use, as Crackles tells me: "We have covered the cost through a long-term contract, on a rate per car. So ultimately the bottom line of paying for the booths will sit with BMW UK." Coming back to the issue of shared booths, Crackles says that it is possible that the port operators could provide some extra booths to remove the 'pinch point' when several OEMs are trying to use shared booths. "The commercial aspect would stack up in the way that in every contract, every supplier has budgeted a certain amount to cover a manual inspection. If they go to an agent that does the inspections for them, there would be a cost per car. If we then pay to put a booth in place, then we go to them and ask for some of that money back, maybe 80% of the cost, for using the booth.

“We invested in the booths to be on board with this technology; we have worked very closely with DeGould to help them build and develop the system. We thought it was beneficial to be involved in the development stages rather than buying one off the shelf later, a system that might have been designed for another OEM's products."

Mapping and customisation

Crackles explains the 'mapping-out' of each vehicle in the BMW range: "We basically map out each vehicle; if we have say, a BMW 3-Series, using the DeGould system we record the correct size and shape of the body panels and these are divided into sections. We worked with DeGould to break this down into usable data to feed back to us."

With modern vehicles available with an ever-increasing range of accessories, the possible combinations of specification could be vast and Crackles says that BMW does not expect to scan these type of variations; it would just be too complex. "We don't enter every accessory and option into the DeGould system because the size of data would be massive and also constantly changing."

Jaguar Land Rover - scanning system development partners

Dan Parnell, Global Distribution Quality Manager of MP&L Finished Vehicle Distribution (FVD) at the carmaker tells Simon Duval Smith about sharing the cost of scanning technology and his dream of how Artificial Intelligence could revolutionise finished vehicle quality control

JLR like other users of the DeGould scanning technology in the UK use it within the plant as Dan Parnell says: “JLR approached the challenge of optimising the inspection process from source. As the central FVD function we have responsibility from Manufacturing handover through to dealer or market. The logical start point was to ensure handover from Manufacturing was clean.” 

"We integrated the Auto-scan process with our Distribution system infrastructure so the handover now takes place, as an automated transaction directly before the booth. This is the closest we can get to actually both a physical and a systems handover. Critical to the process is that this also acts as financial trigger, with vehicle ownership transitioning from Manufacturing to Sales, the term we use being “Accepted by Sales” (ABS)" 

“With this trigger in mind we have spent a significant amount of time working with the Degould team to ensure that the facility does no act as pinch point for Manufacturing. The Solihull Plant booth initially had a Takt time of circa 39 seconds, this has now been reduced to 20, giving us the capacity to process 180 vehicles per hour.”

“In the 5 years since installation we have processed nearly 1 million vehicles through the Solihull booth, our analysis of the images provided by DeGould have given us the confidence to completely remove manual inspection, itself a bottleneck, from the Distribution flow. This has both delivered process flow improvements and related cost savings but also provided a consistent vehicle image capture process available 24/7.”

Passing on a perfect product

I ask Parnell at what point does manufacturing say right, that vehicle is perfect, it's now yours? “The vehicle will go through a number of quality checks through the manufacturing process, the ideal handover is directly off the Customer Acceptance Line, as is the case in our new Nitra facility, this though is not always the case especially with some of our existing UK plants. That said FVD’s expectation is to receive a Quality product at ABS and to maintain this through the Distribution Chain to the customer.” 

The JLR team worked very hard to perfect the scanning 'maps' for their very varied vehicles as Parnell tells me: "A lot of the development work concentrated on where we wanted to focus the imagery. This resulted in 17 cameras with very high resolution of over 45 megapixels. This will also upgrade as technology advances as part of our service level agreement is that the technology will get updated. Imagery includes dedicated wheel shots, roof shots and all exterior panel shots and we are also starting to focus on underbody with the introduction of EV technology”. 

"In effect what I've now got is a whole exterior digital passport for that vehicle which I will then use as a reference point for any damage picked up further in the chain. If we then receive a claim from a market, the first activity of our Claims Recovery Agent is to access the image dataset for the specific vin through the Degould portal, and make an objective decision around liability."

As with many UK OEMs, JLR contract a Claims Recovery agent, as Parnell says, "For us that is Sevatas, we operate a very close relationship between the three parties. So I'm using DeGould as a technology partner enhancing Sevatas's process so there is a joint approach there, All the data is stored on the Cloud, all accessible and integrated into our systems and our claims handling agents systems ".

Location, location, location

As there are variations in booths and many locations, I wondered how the process works. “As explained above the handover from Manufacturing is critical and all vehicle flows are directed through the booth, the vehicle is then under the control of our Compound Handling Service Provider who will marshal the vehicles for collection by Road Transport. At this point there is physical inspection in Load Lane conducted by the driver. Any damage is captured and recorded manually, our intention is to utilise the Degould Vector Mapping App which will then upload directly into a central “Global Inspection Database”. In essence we are beginning to populate the vehicles “Digital Passport”. The vehicles next destination would either be a UK compound for the home market or a Port of Exit for export. With the former we envisage the use of the App through to dealer delivery. 

When it comes to export we have reviewed the port processes to determine the optimum approach, in the case of Southampton as a strategic export port Auto-scan was deemed as the best approach to support this.”

Wallenius Wilhelmsen have invested in a multi-user pad dual booth at Southampton and this is valuable for OEMs such as JLR to check vehicles again before embarking on their outgoing journey by sea, as Parnell tells me. "With the booths at Southampton, we will then have another digital inspection. Once again, if there is a claim, we have the ability to actually reference and compare both sets of images. The key for me is that the DeGould system gives me a set of consistent, high quality images at key handover points in the vehicle flow, which I have never had before." This consistency is crucial to the outbound chain. JLR’s Finished Vehicle Distribution’s team vision is to have a digital footprint for a vehicle through the whole Distribution chain 

Artificial intelligence in scanning - the impossible dream?

I ask Parnell when he thinks artificial intelligence will enable damage identification without the images even being checked by a human?

He says, " I think we're not we're not too far away from that in terms of specification check, and detecting damage in what I would classify as a sterile environment. I think the challenge that we will have is once a vehicle is actually in the big wide world then it's going to encounter varying weather conditions and transport dirt. With all of the challenges that we have, I think it then becomes a lot more difficult from an AI perspective, but in a plant environment then yes we’ll get there. 

I think we are getting closer to a full AI operation but that is the holy grail, that is the ultimate challenge. The nirvana for the industry is automated Identification. I think we're already at a stage in the process where for the Southampton booth for example, we have incorporated DeGould’s dent arch technology into Auto-scan which utilises AI. That will get us to a point where the system will identify a dent and notify us in real-time”. 

I ask Parnell if this is simply because the technology 'knows' what shape a panel should be? "The dent arch advancement uses intelligent lighting to highlight panel deformation as the vehicle passes through. The AI needs to then learn what is a dent and what is the natural form of the panel, which it does as we feedback accordingly. 

Much of this technology is going back to machine vision principles and I put it to Parnell that it must be hard for the machine vision guys to understand why then this process isn't further on than it is but the complexity of the vehicle structure on the exterior must be extremely challenging and that's not even thinking about all the different colours and metallic paints and other special finishes.

I ask Parnell what his dream technology is and when he thinks it might evolve. He says, "Eventually we will have nano-sensors within the paint technology that can determine the car has actually had an impact or not! In the near term what I want is a digital passport, for the vehicle, and in real time. As AI capability improves then we will see what advancements are available and how we can integrate them into our operations. We look to take a holistic approach, one thing I have always said is that “transit damage” is an industry issue and we will look to collaborate driving improvement.”

Bentley - proactively digitalising the supply chain

Paul Allen, Vehicle Distribution Manager, Bentley Motors told me how impressed he is with the DeGould Auto-scan technology, “The technology captures 17 high resolution images covering 360 degrees of the car in just a couple of seconds, this gives us absolute confidence in the condition of the car prior to it leaving the factory. So, if an incident does happen along the journey, we are able to pinpoint where that incident happened, what kind of damage happened and we can do some root cause analysis, allowing us to identify any trends before a car reaches an importer.

“This technology is being installed in all the ports along the journey, currently we have an Auto-scan in Crewe, the next stage will be having them put into the ports in the UK and overseas. So, our cars will pass through an Auto-scan as they leave Crewe, and again at the port of export and the port of entry. This then gives us a photographic digital stamp of the condition of that car, complete digital vector mapping throughout the entire supply chain.”

Allen shares Bentley’s aspirations to digitalise the entire supply chain, as the OEM looks to gain complete real-time reporting in relation to inspections and trend analysis, offering the ability to put problem resolutions into areas before the cars reach customers, “We don't want to be in a reactive state, in previous times we have been. In the past we have waited for the customer to tell us that there is problem - we need to get to that problem sooner rather than later. This digitalisation through the DeGould system enables us to do that.”

One common objective

As Degould’s technology goes into automotive ports all around the world it will offer OEMs the opportunity to utilise the technology and put their cars through the same inspection standard, gaining standardisation throughout the supply chain. Allen agrees the best way forward is for OEM’s to share these facilities, “I think one thing that is good about logistics and good about other OEMs - we all have the same objectives. The competition is not in logistics. Where we can share best practice and best practice ideas, we have one common objective - to get the car to the customer in the same first-class condition that it leaves our factories.” 

Automotive Purchasing and Supply Chain Magazine - Issue 32

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