Although robots are now being produced en masse, and increasingly used in diverse business sectors such as customer service and electronics testing, they are still most widely used by the automotive industry.
In 2015, robot sales to the automotive industry worldwide increased by 4% to around 97,500 units, establishing a new peak for the fifth year in a row. The share of the total supply in 2015 for the industry was about 38% of overall robot sales. Between 2010 and 2015, robot sales to the automotive industry increased by 20% on average per year (CAGR).
Robots are tasked with many jobs on the automotive production line – including painting, dispensing, sealing and welding – but how do these robots actually work?
Robots with machine vision are currently being used by Amazon to check boxes, as described by Axa IM fund manager Tom Riley in The Industry Speaks, but they are also widely used by car manufacturers.
During the production of the 2013 Ford Escape, the company introduced a robotic arm with eyes comprising a laser and a camera. This helped it to see where to install parts on the car body. This meant that door panels, windscreens and fenders were applied more precisely. Machine vision means that a robot can adapt its installation procedure to accommodate variations in production.
Automation and mass customisation
In 1909, in the age of mass production, Henry Ford produced his first Model T. We are now in the age of mass customisation. There are currently approximately 10 million variants of Mini made possible by sophisticated software-driven automotive equipment.
The equipment includes complicated sensing capabilities, such as the already mentioned machine vision, as well as sophisticated inventory management.
Advanced automated technology can also include predictive maintenance work, limiting downtime, and other reliant parts of the supply chain see less downtime too.
Collaborative robots (cobots)
Collaborative robots can be designed to work either with each other or with humans. At the Chinese automotive plant Great Wall Motors (GWM), the ABB IRB 7600 – a handling robot – worked alongside the ABB IRB 6640 – a welding robot. The first robot put the panel in the right location, while the second performed the welding activity.
This line performed more than 4,000 welding operations on the car body in an 86-second cycle. It is often cited as an example of cobots working efficiently together. Similarly, cobots are increasingly being used alongside humans to help them with heavy or dirty work. Safety in collaborative work has been enhanced by touch pressure, among other things. This means the robots can be shut down, or can recognise humans are nearby using machine vision.
The German car industry has adopted cobots to help humans in several areas. Audi has introduced a robot that hands coolant expansion tanks to line workers at its Neckarsulm production facility, and Volkswagen has employed similar helper robots to assist during car assembly, as have Mercedes-Benz and Opel.
Mechanical and usually programmable robotic arms are another type of robot with many uses in car manufacturing production lines.
These include dangerous environments that require high-quality and precision work including rig cutting, moulding machines, screw driving, assembling, labelling and handling heavy objects during the automotive production process.