On New Year’s Eve 1879, German inventor Karl Benz rang in the new year on the world’s first modern automobile. The vehicle seated two, ran on three wire-spoked wheels, and proceeded to revolutionise the future of transport.

Since their invention, we have seen much progress in the safety, speed and production efficiency of automobiles. Today, the industry is about to drive into a new era of growth, driven by tech advances such as the Internet of Things (IoT), 5G and cloud computing.

Malaysia’s national car maker Proton recently shared its vision of the future of car manufacturing during the Smart Manufacturing Circuit 2020 virtual event, which was organised by TM ONE, the enterprise and public sector business arm of Telekom Malaysia Berhad (TM).

Automotive Tech

PROTON tapped a new range of tech to enhance its manufacturing processes. Just one example is the use of cloud computing to run simulations for modelling new car designs.

By using the cloud’s high compute power, the time taken to generate simulations has dropped from three weeks to a mere three days, according to Hazrin Fazail Haroon, the company’s Director of Research & Development.

Engineers are now able to produce prototypes far more rapidly and accurately through 3D modelling. This approach enables car makers to confirm the exact dimensions of different parts before the cutting process begins. “This eliminates waste and extra costs that we have to pay if there are mistakes in the design,” Hazrin explained.

PROTON also uses computer aided engineering (CAE) to speed through the manufacturing journey. Engineers are able to create programmes to carry out repetitive processes, he said.

Tech companies such as Huawei are focusing their efforts on car manufacturers. Huawei is evaluating the use of 5G and IoT to improve vehicle safety. Future automobiles will be able to predict traffic congestions and remain connected with other similarly equipped vehicles and traffic systems, said Eng Chew Hian, Business Development Director at HUAWEI CLOUD Malaysia.

Huawei is also probing the possibility of preparing electric vehicles for Malaysia and the Southeast Asian market. Currently, electric cars may corrode more easily in the region’s humid climate, Eng pointed out. This will need to be fixed before they become a feasible mainstream option.

Build talent

“Before you develop the products, you need to develop the people,” Hazrin said. PROTON has long collaborated with the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) and Malaysia Automotive, Robotics & IoT Institute (MARii) to build up tech talent for the automobile industry.

The first initiative in this partnership was a training centre launched last August in Cyberjaya. Engineers and suppliers receive training for computer aided engineering at the CAE Simulation & Analysis Centre (MARSAC), so they can bring the knowledge back to their companies, Hazrin noted.

This will help companies develop their own components and systems, and speed the process of producing high quality products. “We hope this centre will grow to become an institute that can also give certifications to not just our suppliers but the whole community of university students, lecturers, and PhD students,” he added.

The Centre will soon extend its training programmes to include 3D printing skills for the automobile sector. Instead of using calculations, car makers can more closely study their design physically with 3D-printed models. The programme, known as the MARii Additive Manufacturing Technology Centre (MAMTEC), will begin in April 2021, Hazrin said.

Policymakers have a big part to play in building tech talent, PROTON believes. The company engage constantly with the government to understand “the areas of emphasis that we need to work on, what will be the platform that can be made available, and how we are going to pursue all these initiatives together for the future,” said Yusri Yusuf, Senior Director of Corporate Strategy & Risk Management at Proton.

Tech companies can contribute their expertise as well. Huawei Academy is exploring the possibility of partnering with PROTON, and universities to better share cutting edge technologies with students, said Eng.

A tech revival

Embracing tech proved to be key to PROTON’s turnaround in sales, especially since the release of a talking smart car in 2018 which became the company’s turning point.

The Proton X70 model features voice command: drivers can ask the car to play a song, or check for weather updates. Customers are also able to lock the car from their smartphone, a promotional video shows.

The model’s tech upgrade “has enabled us to upscale in terms of competitive advantage, and we have received overwhelming feedback for X70 as well X50 compared to our anticipation,” said Yusri. The X70’s introduction has proved to be an “impetus for Proton’s brand turnaround”.

Following the success of X70 and X50, digital technology will continue to be one of key emphases for PROTON, as it sees the traction of advanced technologies on its business growth. The car maker will focus on improving five aspects: energy efficiency, safety, intelligent driving, intelligent connectivity and eco-friendliness, Yusri shared. This will cover the entire ecosystem: from sales, marketing and customer service, and all the way through to the broader supply chain.

In terms of collaboration in the tech ecosystem, PROTON will continue to work with tech companies to strengthen its tech for its key automotive value chain activities, in particular in product development, component sourcing and supply chain, manufacturing, and sales and services. It will focus on specific tech such as connectivity, new energy and electrical and electronics.

The session with PROTON was moderated by Maznan Deraman, Head of Innovative Solutions at TM ONE. He said, “In order to move forward and create a competitive edge in a challenging market, organisations need to have a clear strategy, a strong partnership ecosystem, and a deep belief in technology and innovation. By working together, we can bring our dreams and ambitions to reality.”

“At TM ONE, we always look forward to working with industry players such as PROTON – especially in elevating national brands towards becoming global champions. It is our role as the technology enabler – to support our partners with cutting-edge technology and complete digital infrastructure and help them take advantage of their digital opportunities,” Maznan concluded.

The pandemic has resulted in immense stress on global supply chains, while customer expectations are rising by the day. Digital technologies and strong partnerships, in tandem with government and tech companies, will help Malaysia’s automobile industry remain resilient.