The auto industry is adding more sophisticated robots, looking to 3D printing, and integrating other advanced technologies.
The U.S. auto industry has been automated for decades. Production of cars and trucks is associated with large, hulking robots fenced off from human employees. Inside those fenced off areas, tasks such as welding are performed.
The industry, though, is advancing on the automation front. Automakers and suppliers are moving toward using collaborative robots, known as cobots. Such devices often are smaller, have more dexterity and can be safely deployed alongside human operators.
What’s more, the industry also wants to expand the use of 3D printers. Automakers such as Ford Motor Co. and BMW AG are working directly with additive manufacturers concerning deployment of the technology. Companies also are utilizing virtual and augmented reality to address manufacturing issues. And, as is the case with many other manufacturers, the auto industry wants to get the most out of Industry 4.0, where “connected” machines communicate with each other and with human operators.
“There are many ways the new automation differs from what automation looked like back in the 1980s,” said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry, labor and economics at the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Center for Automotive Research (CAR).
“These days, automation is not only replicating human physical effort but also connecting it to other cyber and physical systems both inside and outside the plant,” Dziczek said. “That means manufacturers are getting more data from the automation and more control over the total manufacturing system—not just control over individual automated stations.”
One symbol of automotive automation trends is Ford’s new Advanced Manufacturing Center in the Detroit suburb of Redford, Mich. Inside, 3D printers and cobots are studied for ways to be used on the factory floor. The center’s virtual and augmented reality facilities are a way for Ford factories worldwide to deal with such issues as how to station production equipment on the plant floor.
Ford formed an advanced manufacturing organization in 2017, bringing together employees from across the automaker’s manufacturing operations. The group identified its site last year after an industrial company moved to another location in the Detroit area.
“The Ford Motor Co. has a very mature relationship with automation,” said Mike Mikula, chief engineer of the global advanced manufacturing organization for Ford. The company wanted to accelerate its manufacturing technology, he said.
What follows are some of the ways automation and new technologies in the auto industry are evolving.
3D Printing Powers Up
3D printing, or additive manufacturing, involves printing a part layer by layer from a digital design. The technology is shifting to printing larger parts and doing more printing with various types of metals. Aerospace has been investing in additive for years because 3D printing enables new designs and has the promise of more efficient use of metals such as titanium.
However, the auto industry has larger production volumes. Until now, adoption of 3D printing by automakers and suppliers has lagged their counterparts in aerospace.
“Current applications of 3D printing are limited to tools, dies, molds, jigs, fixtures and some low-volume parts,” said CAR’s Dziczek. “The real hurdles to wider adoption of 3D printing in mass-produced autos and parts are cycle time, cost and sunk costs of the current stamping-, molding- and machining-based part formation processes. 3D printing has to get faster and costs have to come down considerably before we’ll see widespread, high-volume applications in the auto industry.”
Nevertheless, additive manufacturing development is underway in the auto industry.
“Advances within the technology of 3D printing in and of themselves create a series of solutions that historically have not been available,” said Ford’s Mikula. The improvements include “the speed in which we can print and with the materials by which we can print. The introduction of carbon fiber-reinforced polymers (CFRP), advanced plastics and certainly metal has dramatically changed the potential applications from the standpoint of what is the ‘art of possible.’
“When you combine that with” increased computing capacity, he continued, “you let the software help you design the part. It does not require the same level of engineering effort and lead time to provide you with a principal solution that meets all your requirements. So both in terms of what we can print and how fast we can print them…it makes 3D printing a very intriguing technology. Certainly our goal here is to leverage it from the standpoint of providing our manufacturing processes with the tooling and assembly aids that they need to be more robust as well as potentially overcome some of the technology challenges associated with 3D printing.”
Previously, Ford has collaborated with Stratasys Ltd. on prototype 3D printers to produce large parts. The automaker, based in Dearborn, Mich., also is an investor, along with BMW, in Desktop Metal, an additive manufacturing company based in Burlington, Mass. Ken Washington, Ford’s chief technology officer, is on Desktop Metal’s board of directors.
Ford and BMW “know this is coming,” said Jonah Myerberg, Desktop Metal’s chief technology officer and co-founder. “They are in a hurry. It’s still a few years out from being seen through-out a vehicle.”
Myerberg said 3D printing will likely expand beyond molds and jigs, but there’s a lot of uncertainty.
“You can’t just look at one area of the vehicle,” he said. “You have to look at the entire vehicle. What we try to do is open their eyes to what we see as the key benefits of 3D printing.” The Desktop Metal executive said automakers may push down the technology to their top tier of suppliers.
“There’s a lot going on behind the scenes that these engineers won’t talk about,” Myerberg said. “We only have a small picture of how our customers are going to use these printers.”
In September, HP Inc. introduced a new 3D printing technology it calls HP Metal Jet, intended for mass production of steel parts. Volkswagen AG intends to use HP Metal Jet technology to produce electric vehicles in the 2020s, according to HP. Electric vehicles have fewer moving parts than conventional internal combustion engines. As a result, EVs may be an opportunity to expand additive manufacturing in the auto industry.
Robots were one of the earliest examples of automation on the factory floor of the auto industry.
The early stages of robot adoption consisted of doing dangerous, repetitive jobs, said Lou Finazzo, general manager, automotive and component markets for FANUC America Corp., Rochester Hills, Mich. Many robots were used to weld car and truck bodies.
“Humans were restrictive in what the automotive industry could really evolve on the body side,” he said. It was challenging for human operators to manipulate “those giant, big weld guns” and reach blindly across the vehicle and apply numerous weld spots “that you didn’t know if they were good or bad.
“Once robotic technology took off, they could design vehicles a little differently, [with] more complex assembly,” he continued. “Also, having a better control loop on the quality, which allowed them to actually reduce the amount of welding and structural components, made assembly of vehicles evolve to where we are today. Those were the initial stages.”
Today, robots and automation are subsidizing labor, and there are labor shortages for manufacturers and suppliers, according to Finazzo.
“So now you can take a person and that person can be responsible for four, five collaborative [robots] and you have actually increased their efficiency…When we talk to traditional car builders, the flexibility that’s required is much more than it used to be in the past,” he said.
Collaborative robots are being noticed in the auto industry. “Two key factors driving the automotive industry’s interest in collaborative robots are speed and cost,” said Darrell Paul, marketing manager for robotics and motion control at Omron Automation Americas, Hoffman Estates, Illinois. “Collaborative robots can be implemented faster and into existing manufacturing environments. These robots also have the ability to work with existing manufacturing cells and operators, which eliminates the need for additional structural or infrastructure costs.”
The company introduced its new TM Series cobot at this year’s CES in Las Vegas. According to Omron, the robot, which has a vision system, allows for quick startups and changeovers. Omron also claims the robot’s software enables it to be trained for different tasks.
At Ford’s Advanced Manufacturing Center, there are robots made by FANUC, ABB, Universal Robots and KUKA Robotics.
“A lot of the work that is done in our plants doesn’t require an industrial robot that has the level of reach and payload that industrial robots basically address,” said Ford’s Mikula. “Collaborative robots provide a small manufacturing footprint, and they can be safely incorporated in and amongst our technicians and our facilities without having to build out a significant infrastructure” of protection.
“With a collaborative robot, you can have a much simpler solution; [you can] bring the work to the robot so that the robot can safely perform the work and do it in a reliable manner,” Mikula continued.
“Our manufacturing facilities are very expensive to modify,” he said. “The content in our vehicles continues to increase. The effort [required] to assemble engines, transmissions, battery packs and vehicles continues to increase over time. So where we can accommodate that additional content and introduce automation to do it…to ensure we deliver our consumers the highest quality product possible at an affordable price, that’s where collaborative robots really fit into the equation.”
From the standpoint of robot vendors, there is a lot of pressure to perform.
“With automotive, speed to market is very important,” Finazzo said. “Ten years ago, [it] would have been a huge success to launch a new truck in 18 months. Now, they’re like, ‘wow, we need to do it in 12 months.’ So, speed to market is a big deal.”
Automotive Vendors Adjust
Some automotive vendors have adjusted to the increased use of cobots and the faster pace.
Inficon, based in Bad Ragaz, Switzerland, makes automotive inspection devices for auto systems. The company has seen its equipment deployed with smaller, collaborative robots. Inficon devices are used to detect leaks of moisture or gases. With collaborative robots, Inficon has more opportunities for its devices to be attached to robots. Infincon products are now used to detect moisture in electric vehicle systems.
“This is something we’ve been working on for five to seven years,” said Thomas Parker, Inficon’s North American automotive sales manager.
Collaborative robots make it easier to deploy Inficon devices. “We’re doing a lot of education to customers about what is possible with a collaborative robot, what is possible with a six-axis robot. There’s a lot of education on my team’s part.”
Hydromat Inc., a maker of machine tools whose customers include automotive customers, has adjusted to industry trends.
With Hydromat, “automation has become more interactive,” said Kevin Shults, director of marketing for the Maryland Heights, Mo.-based company. “For workers, the systems have become more interactive between operators and the machine tools they run. Programming at the machine is more commonplace.”
Changes in the auto industry mean “more frequent change over,” Shults said. “Changeovers have to be faster.”
Shults added, “Automation is essential in the quest to offer our automotive customers the multi-part families that give them diversity and product profits.”
Efforts are underway to improve worker skills as the auto industry becomes more sophisticated.
AIDT, Alabama’s workforce training program, is trying to step up its worker training efforts as auto industry employment becomes more sophisticated. Employees at factories come to AIDT facilities in Tanner, Ala., near Huntsville for training sessions.
Alabama is home to several vehicle-assembly plants. The state also has aerospace factories. As a result, Alabama is trying to improve its manufacturing training. In January, an Alabama delegation visited the Detroit headquarters of Lightweight Innovations For Tomorrow (LIFT),
the Manufacturing USA institute that brings together companies and academics to improve lightweighting technology for manufacturing.
“Alabama [is] evolving in manufacturing,” said Kristi Bain, AIDT’s assistant director.
“We have to work in an advanced manufacturing scenario,” said Ed Castle, Alabama deputy secretary of commerce in that agency’s workforce development commission. “For us, it’s a simple equation. What is the need and how do you define that need?”
Ford’s Mikula said these trends reflect how auto manufacturing is more attractive than it once was.
“It’s a really exciting place to be,” he said. “It’s a really fun place to be.”