The latest automation solutions stress flexible equipment to help cut automotive costs, speed development
By Patrick Waurzyniak
With the current energy crunch, automotive manufacturers face an even greater need for fast, efficient, and flexible automation solutions that enable them to more effectively compete in global markets. As automakers face today's challenges, automating manufacturing processes can help reduce costs and speed time-to-market with flexible factory-floor equipment and software.
The need for speed in product development has never been more apparent than this year, with high gas prices prompting the massive switch by consumers from large trucks and SUVs to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. Flexible assembly lines that can be reconfigured quickly to build newer products are in high demand as automakers try to rapidly respond to market demands.
Flexible manufacturing solutions now enable auto builders to forego swapping out expensive machinery, and instead reprogram the assembly line to handle newer product designs. "There's a definite push toward flexible manufacturing, and what I mean by that is the ability to purchase and re-use equipment that allows you to change the scope and capacity of the line," notes Rodney M. Rusk, automotive industry manager, North America, at the Rochester Hills, MI, automotive unit of Bosch Rexroth Corp., Electric Drives and Controls (Hoffman Estates, IL). "Automakers are moving toward what I'm going to call 'distributed intelligence,' which moves the safety away from the PLC and down to the drive level, and makes the manufacturing environment safer, combining that type of safety technology with automated lift platforms for body shop or final-assembly operations.
"Right now, most of these manufacturers will carry two or three lines or two or three product platforms going down one line," he says. "But now they're moving to not just two or three product platforms going down the line, but being able to quickly retool that line without changing a piece of equipment. Now they have flexibility of taking the drives and reprogramming them, reprogramming the PLC, and having the flexibility of X-Y-Z axes already built-in."
With Bosch Rexroth's IndraMotion MTX controls, drives, and assembly conveyor systems, the company offers automakers a broad-based full solution, Rusk notes. "Primarily on the controls side, they're looking for a piece of equipment that gives them that flexibility. It also gives them that common kernel, so that they can modify it in the future, and not have to buy new software or hardware—all they have to do is go in and change some settings," he adds. "They're looking for that full scope of functionality, from the low-end to the high-end, to be built in."
Flexible lines also can increase the ability to easily add safety features on assembly lines that change rapidly in reaction to time-to-market pressures. "This is where the safety really comes in, because now that they're making these changes, they're also reducing their overall content on the line, and for future moves, they need to make sure that they don't do something that will hinder their work," Rusk adds. "Therefore, it's important to have that on-board intelligence at the drive, or as close to where either an assembly technician or a maintenance person might step in.
"We've continued to develop our drive, CNC, and rail and guarding technology. Several years ago, we found ourselves in a very unique situation where, because we are really the only manufacturer that does electric, pneumatic, linear, and hydraulics, we actually just took standard product and put it together to build or provide the product for a flexible cell."
Improved safety and networking advances for automotive customers are key trends, according to Reinhold Niesing, manager, Powertrain, Automotive Center of Competence (CoC) for the Troy, MI-based automotive business unit of Siemens Energy & Automation Inc. (Alpharetta, GA). Many recent safety advances have migrated over from Europe, Niesing notes, with newer systems here based on the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 79 standard for industrial machinery. "There is more international standardization, so different safety bodies in the world slowly actually adjust to do it in harmonization, and safety standards become more common around the world. For example, we see already in Europe a lot of things that were possible and approved there regarding safety and safe networks, which were not approved in the United States, are now coming here."
The latest drive-level safety standards are incorporated into Siemens' Sinumerik controls and drives systems, with the latest in networking capabilities using Profibus and highbandwidth Ethernet, Niesing notes. "Siemens is a strong supporter of Profibus," he says, noting that its advantages include "higher throughout, the number of nodes, the diagnostic functionality implemented, and the different profiles—from simple I/O to drive profiles—so that you can synchronize drive systems with our Profibus network."
Advanced networking capabilities are critical to automotive environments. "Machines are networked with each other in automotive, which is much different from a standard job-shop floor, because the machines in the job shop are typically used as standalone machines," Niesing says. "Within automotive environments, we typically see that the machines are linked." CNC equipment deployed in powertrain manufacturing cells often uses automatic loading mechanisms, such as gantry systems that provide automatic material handling."
More automotive networks are employing Ethernetbased protocols, Niesing adds, which allow manufacturers to set up safety zones in the networks that are very effective. These networks are capable of collecting safetyrelated information. "By using networks, it's much easier to implement specific safety zones," Niesing says, "so if you press one E-stop [emergency stop], it's more like a decision of the machine, where the E-stop has to be applied, because in many cases it's not necessary to completely stop all the machines.
"With integrated safety, you're using existing networks for safety-related information," he adds. "That makes it much easier to integrate the safety into the machines. They don't need a separate, completely dedicated, traditional safety system, which is typically based on electromechanical components. The integrated safety system typically knows much better what the machine is doing right now, and what it wants to do in the near future, so it can actually prevent dangerous situations—or hazardous situations—because it's integrated. It's part of the system."
Plant IT security issues along with the considerable costs associated with maintaining Windows-based computers on the shop floor are some recent developments that Siemens has addressed for its automotive customers, according to Jim Remski, manager, powertrain industry sector, at Siemens' CoC. Automotive OEMs and suppliers "are busy manufacturing new products, and are continuing to look for ways to reduce their complete lifecycle costs. They're constantly looking to improve their processes. One of the things that I see our automotive customers dealing with is the co-existence of plant IT and information technology systems, where they're very concerned about security and access rights."
Automakers face a dilemma with allowing remote access to plant IT systems by company field experts who need to help support plant operations, but are not located on site, Remski notes. "Automotive companies are looking for answers to the questions: 'How can I ensure that I get proper support for my manufacturing plants that may not lie within the Midwest US, or even in North America, but instead may be in other countries and continents throughout the world? How can I make sure that the right people—whether service people from some of the machine suppliers, some of the automotive design engineers, or manufacturing engineers—get remote access to the site, but maintain the plant/corporate security guidelines? We see that happening frequently where automotive companies are looking for a solution to provide that access, and one of the products Siemens has is a system we call ePS, or electronic Production Systems."
The Siemens ePS Network Services is an Internet-based service that allows a plant to call out, rather than having a person call into a plant, says Remski. "If you're the plant IT person and you have various people dialing in remotely into the plant, you'd have great concerns about that," Remski states. "Our ePS is a server-based concept where the plant can call out for service, and various subject-matter experts can log into a server where the plant, the machine information, diagnostics reports, teleservice, and online chats can all be facilitated."
The system uses WebX as a backbone for its teleservices, but future plans would incorporate the system into the Teamcenter PLM data management system from Siemens PLM Software (Plano, TX), he adds. "Today, we're using WebX just for that basic teleservice, video recording, and file-transfer services. If I'm a machine manufacturer and my service engineers are traveling throughout the world, which they often do, and I get a call from a customer or a machine that may be the country or a continent away, this is a way that a service engineer can log in to a network server and have access to that machine information to be able to help support that customer remotely."
Costs associated with shop-floor PCs represent another sizeable burden for cash-strapped automakers. Remski notes that many automotive companies aim to relieve or reduce the high maintenance costs of supporting PCs on the automotive manufacturing floor. "Our automotive customers are coming to us and saying that having a personal computer on the floor and dealing with operating system updates, patches, security releases, and virus scanners is a very large cost."
With Siemens' "thin-client" systems, the HMI needed by plant-floor operators and maintenance personnel has been embedded in the CNC controller, rather than using a Windows-based PC, he says. "Our approach now is to embed the HMI system as part of the CNC controller, so there's no longer a Microsoft operating system, there's no longer a computer with rotating media," Remski says.
"That HMI application is now part of the CNC drive system. Our 840D sl [solution line] control has that, so now the HMI panel is what we call a 'thin-client' unit. The application is coming from the CNC controller, and that panel is really just kind of a dumb display. We offer that as a fixed HMI, where you would put it in a panel and it would always be there, or as a handheld walkabout, a mobile unit, where a person could walk around with a display that has no rotating media."
Lean techniques and line sequencing can help automotive Tier suppliers ensure that auto parts and modules are built right the first time and delivered on time to auto OEMs, who increasingly impose severe penalties for late shipments or poor-quality components. "It's a very tough business," notes Rich Breuning, global product general manager, discrete solutions, GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms (Charlottesville, VA). "We actually split automotive into two markets; we look at the mature markets, and what the trends are in the emerging markets. Emerging markets are wide-open right now. They can't build plants fast enough, and the capabilities of what they're looking for are pretty comparable to what automotive in the mature markets were looking for 10–15 years ago.
"We believe we're kind of on the cusp of a transition occurring," Breuning says. "If you take a look at China, for example, they could just keep producing the same car over and over again—whatever they produce, they can sell. But we believe the market's starting to mature where people want a little more diversity in the product that's being offered, and over time, it's going to become more important to take cost out of the manufacturing of a product and to ensure you have very good first-time quality."
For automotive and other discrete manufacturing, GE Fanuc's Proficy Assembly software solutions offer a Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA) server-based platform that aims to help reduce the huge costs of warranty claims for automotive OEMs and suppliers. A few years ago, GE Fanuc and the Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG, Southfield, MI) studied the warranty cost situation, and set out to reduce the $15 billion annual costs in overall warranty claims. "We've been very active in automotive doing large tracking, routing applications with the automakers for the last 20 years," Breuning notes. "The trends that we studied at the time, about 3–4 years ago, mainly focused on a lot of outsourcing that was occurring with the automakers, out to major Tier suppliers, and the cost of warranty. The AIAG brought in people that were experts in different areas, including cost of warranty.
"We found out then that there were two major industries in the Americas that have the highest cost of warranty to their product, and one of them is automotive, and the second was computer manufacturing. With automotive, that was somewhere around $15 billion for the cost of warranty per year, and about $6 billion of that cost was associated with manufacturing issues. The other $9 billion was associated with design issues around the product itself.
To solve the $6 billion problem that was being absorbed by the automakers, the companies developed what was called Early Warning Systems, focused around safety components on a vehicle, Breuning says, as automakers decided to lower this high cost of warranty, in addition to their exposure on safety issues. "Because of the high recall costs that were occurring back then, and the difficulty of trying to isolate whose problem it was, it was pretty clear that they need to collect detailed genealogy and traceability records of how the product was manufactured," Breuning recalls. "We took that concept and said 'OK, for early warning, why solve the problem after-the-fact? Let's be sure we build products right the first time.' There's always been the concept in automotive of error-proofing, the concept of poke-yoke which is the Japanese term, and we decided to take a tool like that to the next level."
With GE Fanuc's Proficy Assembly package, automakers and suppliers can ensure that components are built right the first time, and the system also allows creation of Birth Certificates, or genealogy and traceability records, as well as making it possible to build products in a Just-in-Time, Just-in-Sequence manufacturing environment.
The International Automotive Components Group's European division's (IAC, Krefeld, Germany) instrument panel factory in Gothenburg, Sweden, deployed GE Fanuc's Proficy Assembly and Proficy Tracker applications, which helped the Tier One supplier optimize its workflow, build products "Right First Time," and create product Birth Certificates to meet contractual obligations and achieve warranty abatement. Right First Time requires a toolset that includes in-line sequencing and error-proofing to create product birth certificates and minimize missed delivery penalties.
"By not building Right First Time, Tier One suppliers are subject to large financial penalties based on their delivery contracts with the auto manufacturers," says Breuning. "A switch from Build-to-Stock to Build-to- Order and Just-in-Time Sequencing is a continuing trend in the marketplace. Tier One suppliers now have to manufacture and deliver subassemblies in sequence in as little as 1.5 hr from the time they are notified by the automakers."
The Gothenburg plant, formerly owned by Lear, manufactures cockpits, or instrument panels, for Volvo, and is required to not only produce the quality product that Volvo expects, but to deliver it on time and in sequence for Volvo's production needs. IAC produces the cockpits for four Volvo models—the V70, XC70, XC90, and S80—with 100-plus part numbers in each panel, and many different combinations depending on the model of car. Volvo installs the instrument panel in the car approximately 4½ hours after the order is received at IAC. If the parts are not ready and IAC shuts down Volvo production, the company incurs large penalties, so keeping the line running to meet production is critical.
"We took technology from our Tracker product and some of our other products and said, 'Let's kind of re-package this and make it very focused on manual assembly,'" Breuning recalls. "So then, what are we doing with this manual assembly? We're basically providing instructions, process steps to the operators at each individual workstation, and we're tightly coupling those instructions into the process itself. Where the automation equipment permits, we are validating that the operator is performing the right operations at the right time.
"In the maturing markets, it's all about lean and taking costs out, and building product right the first time," Breuning says. "And consolidation is huge, that's going on, too. A company like IAC didn't even exist when we first started doing that implementation—at that time, it was with Lear."
This article was first published in the September 2008 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.