Robots Take Over Automotive Plant Floors
by George Weimer, contributing editor
The progress of robots in the past 30 years has been amazing. In fact, the progress in the past year is something to brag about. Proof? Besides taking a plant tour to any automotive assembly plant in the world — especially in Japan — just type “robots” into any search engine on the Internet and get ready to scroll into one of the hottest research areas in modern times. Even more to the point, robotics and the Internet will continue to be used in tandem.
While robotics and the Internet suggest a whole new world of automation, the plant-floor world of auto making is where today’s robots do most of their work. Ninety percent of the robots in the world work in factories, and fully half of those help manufacture cars. In fact, human work in the car factory is becoming a matter of supervising robots and other machines.
“Automotive manufacturers were the first to apply robotics, and they are still most of the users,” says Fanuc general manager Dick Johnson. “Automotive is still the major force in pushing ahead. Large truck frames, for example, up to 500 pounds, are now being handled by robots.” He notes that Fanuc designed a system for that using two 400-pound robots that cooperate in moving the large frame around. Fanuc calls this “dual-arm control.”
The dual-arm configuration for the Fanuc Toploader series increases throughput for multiple machine tool installations. In effect, the Toploader can walk and chew gum at the same time.
Robots a manufacturing must
Other areas where robots are taking on the automotive world include the deflashing of blow-molded parts such as fuel tanks and injection-molded parts like those used for car trim and other body panels.
“These days,” Johnson adds, “new manufacturing techniques automatically integrate robots.
A state-of-the-art system that demonstrates that fact is a Lamb Technicon system that incorporates Fanuc’s M710IT robot for more flexibility “
Another trend is to use top-mount loading, which eliminates conveyors. And, the Fanuc executive says, there is more intelligence in robotics today. Fanuc’s I:21i is an example of a “21st century robot” that was initially used in auto plants for clutch assemblies. The same robot is now equipped with 3D vision.
Earlier this year, Fanuc held a special conference on robotics in Japan for some 2,400 customers. Intelligence in robotics as well as the use of advanced teaching pendants and the latest in diagnostics were discussed at the meeting. “More than ever, maintainability and reliability issues in robotics can now be handled remotely via Ethernet,” Johnson explains.
Fanuc will soon be coming out with a robot simulations tool. This will allow manufacturing engineers to look at robots in 3D space, work out cycle times and other technical matters, and then download to real robots.
Another major force in the American robotics market is Sweden’s ABB. In a recent report, ABB noted that with the increasing use of robots and related automation in the automobile industry, the “drivers” continue to be increasing labor costs, robotic technology price decreases and the ever-difficult shortage of skilled labor. The remarkable ease of use that new robotics technologies offer to the end user is making the decision to use robots easier than ever. As one GM observer puts it, “They’re almost human, but they don’t seem interested in organizing.” In fact, due to the terrific increase in quality (reliability, accuracy and so on), GM reorganized its robotics purchasing within the company’s overall purchasing function as a separate department.
ABB adds that robots today are more and more coupled with various levels of expert systems, and that together they form the latest in automation of the plant floor. Further, ABB points out, connecting that capital with the company’s worldwide spare parts and ordering system further improves the productivity of the user.
Last year was the second best in U.S. robotics history, according to the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), Ann Arbor, Michigan. Member companies reported 12,744 units booked for the North American market during 2000. There were nearly 1,600 units made for overseas markets as well, RIA reports. That’s some $1.1 billion in business. Still, 2000 came in more than 10 percent below 1999’s record business performance. It is reassuring that 2000 was the fourth consecutive year of more than $1 billion in robotics sales, RIA adds.
“We actually saw strong growth in several application areas for robots, including assembly, material removal [machining], dispensing and coating. Material handling, which is the largest application area, came within just two percent of the record set in 1999,” points out RIA executive vice president, Donald A. Vincent.
The primary inhabitants
There are now some 110,000 full-fledged robots working in U.S. industrial plants, just behind Japan. How will 2001 shake out? It depends. Like all other capital good and machine tool makers, the robotics industry is reporting declines in new orders. The first quarter of this year is down a sizable 36 percent from last year, according to RIA.
“Robot manufacturers, machine tool builders and other factory automation equipment providers are experiencing order delays from major customers as well as slowdowns in orders from prospective customers,” Vincent adds. On the other hand, and much like the machine tool industry, robotics manufacturers have a sizable backlog to work off while the economy moves through this downturn.
Robots and related technologies, particularly in larger automotive companies, look destined to be the primary inhabitants of the plant floor. These robots are already more accurate than the humans they replace, and they bring new productivity, according to engineering experts. MHM
Robots Benefit Bottom Line
“Material handling issues in the automotive industry continue to have significant bottom-line impact for manufacturers. This is especially obvious now with small production runs and a greater variety of car models being manufactured at any one time. Swisslog’s robotic systems include automated systems for press unloading, stacking of car body parts and multi-position handling of engine blocks, i.e., loading and unloading engine packages,” says Richard Slade, account executive, Swisslog North America.
Swisslog addresses material handling issues such as controlling the logistics of material flow, making sure machinery can withstand the stress of continuous three-shift work, and maintaining a high level of cleanliness, hygiene and low noise levels on the plant floor.