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Automotive Manufacturing Automation and Workholding

What You Need to Know.

In this article we will take a closer look at:

1. Introduction
2. Automotive Industry Applications of Automation
3. Types of Automaiton Used in Automotive Mfg
    > Fixed Automation
    > Progtammable Automation
    > Flexible Automation
    > Examples of Manufacturing Automation

4. Robotics and Workholding in Automotive Automation
    > Advanced Robotic Automation
    > Body-in-White (BIW) Robotic Welding Cells
    > Stamping Press Automation Solutions
    > Automotive Powertrain Manufacture & Assembly
    > Vehicle Final Trim & Assembly

5. Conclusion

Introduction

As traditional automotive industry manufacturers struggle to stay profitable in the short term and alive in the long, good workholding is recognized as the key to manufacturing automation.

The automobile industry is no stranger to automation. It is a pioneer in this area, having started on its journey in the 1960s. Very little in the assembly line or supply chain is not fully optimized, and even less is left to gain.

From simple mechanization, automotive manufacturers progressed to industrial robotics – General Motors introduced Unimate, the world’s first industrial robot – then to digital automation and today are extensive users of robotic automation.

According to the International Federation of Robotics, U.S. automakers buy 50% of industrial robots sold globally.

A few years ago, Ford introduced a “seeing” robotic arm to install different parts, such as windshields, fenders and doors, on the body of the Ford Escape more accurately. Chrysler’s Sterling Heights, Michigan assembly plant has a robotic flexible body shop, Handling everything from welding, assembly, painting and machining, robotic automation is indispensable on the automobile shop floor.

Our goal in this article is to provide an overview of the automotive industry’s applications of automation, the different types of automation and the uses for robotic workholding in automotive applications.

Automotive Industry Applications of Automation

Applications of automation in the automotive industry typically include:

  • Welding
  • Painting
  • Assembly
  • Stamping
  • Machining
  • Casting
  • Inspection and Measurement

Each of these applications integrates robots, fixtures and workholding into their automated manufacturing designs.

The future of automation and workholding in automotive manufacturing is progressing with robotics, machine vision, cobots, and other digital technologies. To take advantage of the growth in automation, you must know your goals, what affects production and the benefits each technology provides. When in doubt, minimize complexity, follow proper engineering principles and work with vendors that provide good customer service.

Types of Automation Used in Automotive Manufacturing

The types of automation used in automated manufacturing include:

  • Fixed Automation – also called hard automation
  • Programmable Automation
  • Flexible Automation

Fixed Automation

Characterized by large volume production and a high barrier of entry, fixed automation often has a set task. Also called hard automation, most programming is contained within individual machines. The speed and sequence of processes are set by the equipment or production line.

An example of fixed automation can be found in the body-in-white and automotive panels, like floor pans, doors, hoods and deck lids. Major vehicle suppliers might produce over a million parts before changing designs.

Additionally, processes such as stamping or casting are used which may not require control systems as sophisticated as automated milling or robotic welding.

Often, the required production volume associated with fixed automation does not allow time for changeovers. However, if any changes are made to fixed automation it would likely require a line to be shut down and for technicians to manually swap tooling. The expense and time associated with this downtime are high. For low volume or products that have shorter life cycles, programmable automation should be considered.

Programmable Automation

Characterized by making several dozens to thousands of parts, programmable automation is associated with batch production. Programmable automation gives manufacturers the ability to produce more types of parts or products. However, downtime is needed to perform changeovers. This downtime is expected and taken into consideration for batch sizes and lead times. However, downtime is expensive and has led to an extension of programmable automation called flexible automation.

Flexible Automation

Flexible automation can perform changeovers automatically. This may limit equipment to producing parts that share similar tools or require additional devices to make automated changeovers possible.

Additionally, since programs need to be changed, flexible automation is often connected to some form of network that increases value by offering remote monitoring or control. Programs are developed offline on a computer. Depending on how the device is connected, a designer could upload, run new programs or work them into existing production from anywhere in the world.

Examples of Manufacturing Automation

To help remember the different types of automation, consider the following examples:

  • Fixed Automation: associated with large volume, single-part production. EX: a gear hobbing machine dedicated to automatically producing one type of gear.
  • Programmable Automation: associated with batch production. EX: a gear hobbing machine that automatically produces different types of gears, but a changeover will cause downtime to change gears.
  • Flexible Automation: associated with real-time or on-demand production. EX: a gear hobbing machine that automatically produces several gear types without the need to be shut down or manually changed over.

Robotics and Workholding in Automotive Automation

Robotics play a major role in manufacturing automation today. Manufacturing robots automate repetitive tasks, reduce margins of error to negligible rates, and enable human workers to focus on more productive areas of the operation. Robots used in manufacturing fill numerous roles today including making up for the lack of qualified employees.

As greater flexibility and quick changeover become requirements to be competitive in manufacturing, the connection between robots, fixtures and workholding is much more sophisticated and is an integral part of fixture designs. Eventually, a robot may become the fixture as well as the part handler.

Furthermore, the increased use of automation and robotics has been a key driver in the development of improved workholding methods.

The automotive industry recognizes that robotic workholding, also known as end-of-arm-tooling, is the key to successful manufacturing automation. The robot itself can’t do any work without end-of-arm tooling such as grippers, sensors, and other automation peripherals.

Robotics in Automotive Automation
End Effectors

Advanced Robotic Automation

In automotive manufacturing automation, the biggest advancements trending today are:

Machine Vision

Inspection, testing and analysis of workpieces can all be achieved by robots that are equipped with machine vision. Machine vision improves workholding effectiveness, eliminates the need for human intervention and reduces production times even further. Robots equipped with machine vision technology can use advanced processes such as infrared imaging, hyperspectral imaging, X-ray imaging and line-scan imaging. The captured image is then analyzed by specialized analysis software within the machine, ensuring precision each time.

Co-Bots

Collaborative robots can work independently using artificial intelligence but may require some human interaction for some automation solutions. The use of co-bots in the auto industry has propelled certain manufacturers above their competitors due to speed, precision and targeted outcomes.

As technology advances further, automotive manufacturers can benefit significantly from continuing to embrace advanced robotic technology.

Body-in-White (BIW) Robotic Welding Cells

Positioning and workholding devices play a significant role in the automotive Body-in-White (BIW) manufacturing process.

At this automotive vehicle manufacturing stage, the plain, non-painted, steel body frame components are welded and assembled to form the vehicle’s basic structure. These frame components need to be positioned accurately and held securely during the BIW welding and assembling operations, which are performed by robotic or by manual processes. Exceptional products and design solutions are available to answer the BIW positioning and workholding needs.

Typical Body-in-White

Stamping Press Automation Solutions

Stamping presses provide all of the stamped components used to build the vehicle body and frame. This includes parts like the body frame, floor pan and body panels - doors, hoods and deck lids.

Automation suppliers design and manufacture a variety of stamping press front-of-line, end-of-line, and tandem press transfer robotic systems. Safety is the highest priority for all stamping press solutions and implementing the latest safety standards using the most current safety controls is vital. To make automatic stamping presses more efficient, legacy controls are replaced to get the most out of your stamping process.

Typical automation solutions include:

Front-Of-Line Blank Destacker Feeder

A good front-of-line automated destacker feeder system provides a continuous feed of blanks to the press line. Robotic front-of-line destacker feeder systems must be flexible and reliable with a wide range of speeds and capabilities.

End-Of-Line Racking System

Robotic end-of-line racking systems deliver parts to operators that are safe, ergonomic, and adaptable for different parts. There are multiple types of end-of-line systems including adjustable conveyors, shuttle pack-out systems, exit conveyors and automatic racking systems.

Tandem Press Transfer Automation

A tandem press transfer system consists of multiple individual presses, with each workpiece being robotically transferred from press to press. Part transfer automation can handle each stamping stage for optimization and speed. Typical key automation features include:

  • Robot transfer anticipation to allow continual press motion
  • Press speed motion monitoring and robot adaption
  • Automatic robot tool changers
Front-of-Line
End-of-Line
Tandem Press Transfer Automation

Some examples of automotive powertrain machining and assembly applications are:

Engine

  • Cylinder block
  • Cylinder head
  • Crankshafts
  • Camshafts
  • Pistons
  • Connecting rods
  • Vehicle Final Trim and Assembly
  • Valves
  • Final Engine assembly

Transmission

  • Housing
  • Torque converter
  • Planetary gear set
  • Clutch packs
  • Output shaft
  • Brake bands
  • Oil pan
  • Valve Body
  • Final Transmission assembly
engine
transmission

Vehicle Final Trim and Assembly

The final stage of automotive manufacturing is Final Trim and Assembly (FTA). The complexity of assembly tasks and the speed of Final Trim and Assembly production lines mean that less than five percent of today’s lines benefit from robotic automation.

One of the main challenges is manufacturers’ desire to produce many different models of vehicles on the same assembly line. Add in the installation of cockpit, seats, carpets and windows – each with several different specification options and colors – and the complexity grows.

For successful assembly of components by a robot, the system must be able to accurately follow a moving body. It must be capable of continuously adjusting the position and speed of the approach to avoid collision with the vehicle, which could damage the paintwork. With assembly task cycle times of only 60 seconds, the robot must hit the exact spot to secure the component to the body or interior.

Currently, the implementation of FTA automation is challenged by carmakers wanting to manufacture many different vehicle models and variants (left and right-hand drive, two- and four-door) on the same assembly line, which makes it difficult to implement comprehensive automation systems. However, the requirements for automated assembly in a continuously moving process can be reduced if, for example, models are created on a common platform, meaning several models being equipped with the same body and their points of connection to the grippers always being the same.

So far, only a few OEMs have implemented this idea of a model platform. The concept also allows carmakers who are building completely new manufacturing facilities to lay the foundation for an open system instead of having to laboriously integrate individual automated processes into existing lines. The goal for Final Trim and Assembly must be open systems in which automated guided vehicles (AGVs) flexibly approach individual automated assembly stations as required. This creates a true factory of the future, one based on modular manufacturing systems and flexible automation solutions that are digitally controlled and interconnected.

Conclusion

As traditional automotive industry manufacturers struggle to stay profitable in the short term and alive in the long, good workholding solutions are recognized as the key to manufacturing automation.

The automobile industry is no stranger to automation and very little in the assembly line or supply chain is not fully optimized, and even less is left to gain.

Automotive manufacturers progressed from simple mechanical automation to industrial robotics-based automation. In fact, according to the International Federation of Robotics, U.S. automakers buy 50% of industrial robots sold globally.

This article provided an overview of automotive industry applications of automation, the different types of automation employed and the uses for robotic workholding in automotive applications. Each of the applications relies heavily on robotics and automated workholding solutions.