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Automating the Future Factory

 Patrick Waurzyniak






By Patrick Waurzyniak
Senior Editor

Global competition in automotive, aerospace and many other industries is heating up, dictating a more forward-looking approach to automating new advanced manufacturing systems. At automation systems integrator Comau Inc. (Southfield, MI), a subsidiary of Fiat S.p.A. (Turin, Italy), the Global Solutions Development (GSD) team tests out its new approaches in flexible automation systems at the Comau Innovation Campus, where on Monday attendees of SME’s BIG M conference got a glimpse of the latest new developments.

The Comau Innovation Campus is home to the NAFTA component of Comau’s GSD, which focuses on Advanced Solutions, Advanced Materials and Process Technologies, Advanced Controls and Product Engineering. In the GSD’s “Blue Room” of the Innovation Campus, new flexible manufacturing techniques get run through their paces to see how to best solve automation engineering problems.

“We’re not a widget company, we’re a solutions company,” said David C. Reid, Products and Solutions Business Manager, US, for Comau’s GSD team. About 60% of Comau’s business is in the automotive industry, although it has a substantial business in aerospace automaton and many other industries. Last year, Comau had sales of $1.5 billion, with about 41% of that total in North America. Comau specializes in body joining and welding, powertrain machining and assembly, robotics and maintenance, as well as environmental services for many industrial sectors.

Comau Laser Lab  

For more than a decade, Comau’s automation research has focused its efforts on solutions like its ComauFlex, which offers a flexible turnkey system for Body-In-White (BIW) manufacturing. “We’ve been trying to migrate the body factory from a traditional to a more flexible approach,” Reid said. “One of our goals in engineering is to engineer out failure modes. We try to make things simple.”

In the Innovation Campus Blue Room, which Reid called the GSD’s play room for testing automation designs, Comau engineers do root cause analysis and Kaizen exercises that help problem solving. With ComauFlex, the company has 46 patents, and 29 patents pending, Reid noted.

Comau’s proven track record speaks for itself. High up on a wall of the Blue Room, a large LCD screen shows a running production count of the number of automotive bodies built using Comau’s OpenGate framing technology for auto body automation. With 130 installations worldwide using the Open Gate technology, a vehicle is made every 5.3 seconds using the system, Reid noted. Since 2008, more than 36 million vehicles worldwide have been built using the high-density welding technology, which uses 18 robots to perform 100 spot welds in about four seconds.

Materials testing also is a major big focus for Comau’s Innovation Center, with a Metrology Lab that performs extensive testing and analysis including optical microscopy, micro hardness tests and grinding and polishing operations. Advanced materials testing is key for Comau, a partner in the American Lightweight Materials Manufacturing Institute (ALMMII) consortium that will be headquartered in southeast Michigan. Automating processes for these advanced materials including aluminum, titanium, high-strength steels and composites poses new hurdles for automation developers, Reid noted.

Comau Innovation Center

“It brings a whole new set of challenges, because these materials can’t be joined by traditional methods,” Reid said, “and today a lot more automotive manufacturers are using these advanced materials.”

Published Date : 6/10/2014

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