Expanding automotive robots

Italian robotics company, Comau, has introduced a family of small robots in hopes of finding applications in vehicle assembly and powertrain, breaking away from its roots in automotive body shops.

September 22, 2015

Massive Comau robots, rated for up to 1,300 lb operations, lift aluminum body sides at Maserati’s Giovanni Agnelli Plant near Turin, Italy. More robots, and a few human workers with large weld guns, connect the panels, creating the body structure for Quattroporte luxury sports sedans.

The body shop – where the parts are heavy, the environment is dangerous, and high-quality repeatability is the priority – is where you’ll find the bulk of robots in automotive manufacturing. It’s where Comau, a subsidiary of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), has made a name for itself. Typical body shops rely on several hundred robots performing handling, sealing, and joining tasks to convert a series of metal panels into automotive bodies.

But to grow the company, Comau Chief Operating Officer Mathias Wiklund says the company can’t rely entirely on big machines for heavy-duty operations. With the launch of the company’s smallest robot, the 6.6 lb rated Racer3, Comau hopes to win work in powertrain manufacturing and assembly operations.

Pointing to some of the large Comau robots assembling body sides at the Maserati plant, Wiklund says, “We hope to show our industry partners that we can take the expertise that we’ve gained in the auto industry from applications such as this one and translate that down to a much smaller scale.”

Powertrain robotics

Engine and transmission production are the most obvious places for a smaller, light-duty robot, Wiklund says. As with body assembly, robotics can improve repeatability and precision, making them suitable for gasket installation, engine sealing, and pick-and-place operations.

“With body assembly, there were practical issues that encouraged the use of robots,” Wiklund explains. “A person can’t carry 100kg body panels around all day. It’s a physical impossibility. But the main value companies saw was repeatability. Only a robot could weld the exact same spot every time. Powertrain needs to think more about flexible manufacturing, and flexible production.”

As engines get smaller, tolerances are strict and getting tighter with every new program. At the same time, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are sharing smaller numbers of engines across a larger number of vehicles, so volumes on each program are increasing. That’s where Wiklund says Comau engineers saw a big opportunity for expansion.

“The market is expecting more and more changes. If you’re thinking about a powertrain manufacturing line today, there’s a lot of automation, and there’s going to be more,” Wiklund says. “You want to have fast changes and flexibility.”

With transmissions, OEMs are introducing six-, seven-, eight-, and even nine-speed automatic gearboxes, adding more gears to transmissions without adding size or weight. Germany transmission supplier ZF fits eight gears in its 8HP70 automatic transmission in a 652mm (25") package. The company’s six-speed 6HP19 is 8% larger, needing more than 708mm (28").

“When you’re fitting more components in a smaller space, you need precision. With a robot, you can be sure you’re going to drop the same part in the same place every time,” Wiklund says.


Trim and finish

Wiklund sees powertrain as the short-term market that could benefit most from a smaller robot. Longer term, final vehicle assembly could also boost efficiency and productivity by adding more automation.

The most manpower-centered portion of automotive plants – trim and finish – is where engines, seats, dashboards, hood ornaments, and all other parts get added to the vehicle. Unlike body shops, where you’ll see one person for every 100 robots, the ratio of man-to-machine is reversed. Tobias Daniel, head of robotics for Europe and the Americas at Comau, says OEMs have typically kept more people than machines in final assembly because there’s significantly more variety between different vehicles (colors, seat types, radio options) than in the body shop, and conditions are safer (no welding or cutting). Still, robots could improve quality and repeatability.

Door seals, for example, tend to be the same regardless of the color of the seats or number of buttons on the entertainment system. Weather-proofing is a major quality imperative, so using robots could guarantee the proper placement of gaskets, weather stripping, and other sealing components.

“Automation is probably the best solution to increasing quality,” Daniel says. “You have the most human touches on a car in final assembly, so the more functions you automate, the more you can improve build quality.”

Comau S.p.A.

About the author: Robert Schoenberger is the editor of TMV and can be reached at 216.393.0271 or rschoenberger@gie.net.


Comau multi-metal vehicle future insights

While Comau is investing in smaller robots, it also has introduced systems to handle the wider variety of materials being used in modern cars and trucks. Martin Kinsella, director of Advanced Materials and Process Technology at Comau, describes his view on the future of the automotive body shop:

Automotive material mix will change dramatically throughout the next several years – moving from a predominant use of mild and high-strength steel to an increasing use of aluminum, cutting weight by 20% to 30%, according to Ducker Worldwide Inc. Aluminum is expected to grow to 27% of the volume for body and closure parts, and 7 out of 10 new pickups in North America will be aluminum-bodied by 2025. Internationally, vehicle aluminum content is expected to approach 35 billion pounds, making automotive the most important global market for aluminum.

Innovative joining processes are becoming more mainstream. Technologies, such as resistance-spot-welding, arc-stud-welding, and laser-welding are processes commonly used with steel, and they can have different application requirements when used with advanced materials. So body shops need to accommodate new materials and new joining processes.

Body-in-white will increasingly deploy multiple processes within a single station or along a single line, accommodating the particularities introduced through diverse joining technologies. Take flow drill screwing (FDS); it has been around for quite a while but has been used largely in small-scale, specialty operations. As FDS and similar joining methods move into higher volume operations, manufacturers need to ensure maintainability, uptime, and efficiency of processes within a multi-material, multi-technology framework.

Comau’s response is the ComauFlex advanced manufacturing strategy, a body shop solution designed to help original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) meet changes in the market. ComauFlex ensures:

  • Model flexibility with random build sequencing
  • Diverse materials and joining methods
  • Improved logistics and reduced traffic flow
  • Consolidation of direct labor placement
  • Compressed program timing
  • Reduced facility footprint
  • Global support

ComauFlex is solution-focused as opposed to component-driven. Instead of multiple feed points, ComauFlex reorganizes production into two distinct, interconnected areas. The system kits and loads material into part carriers at the beginning of the line and automatically transports it through the build sequence. Robots remove parts as they are needed within each cell.

Faster part feeding and loading allows fewer conveyors and less possibility for breakdowns or part shortages. OEMs can see improvements in both mean time between failure and mean time to repair.

The modular system is built around standard products. Production can be expanded by adding basic robot integrated configurations (BRICs) to the line and relocating final stations. Pre-assembled BRIC cells are ready for installation upon arrival, so lines can expand quickly.

Finally, ComauFlex supports dissimilar materials, ensures operational flexibility, and manages high volumes and multiple models. Comau is investing in a comprehensive advanced materials strategy that focuses on a combination of highly-efficient principles and designs to assemble multiple materials including aluminum, advanced high-strength steel, carbon fiber composites, and magnesium.