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Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The Future of Robotics in Manufacturing: Moving to the Other Side of the Factory

Industry Week
Feb 15, 2012

A robotic arm prepares to place a door on a BMW at the automaker's Spartanburg, S.C., plant. Using electronic-measuring technology, the robot takes multiple photos of the relationship between the vehicle and the door and adjusts its position to eliminate any potential gaps in the fit caused by variations in the sheet metal.

To boldly go where they've never gone before, robots will need to become smarter, cheaper and easier to use. The industry could turn to an unlikely source to get there.

The birth of a BMW sports-activity vehicle begins with a few pieces of metal and the whirs, thrusts and twists of a robot.

Although BMW employs more than 7,000 people at its sprawling factory complex in Spartanburg, S.C., humans are a rare sight on the X5/X6 line in the body shop. There, a battalion of more than 380 robots -- there are nearly 1,000 of them plantwide -- fashions X5 vehicle bodies from 443 separate pieces of metal, performing 237 stud welds and more than 6,000 spot welds on each one, among a flurry of other tasks. The body shop also boasts BMW's first fully automated hang-on fit line, where robots attach the doors, hoods, hatches and fenders to the vehicles. The "Best Fit" system, which debuted on Spartanburg's X3 line in 2010, automates a process so critical to BMW's quality standards that it once was trusted only to human hands. "It was the one part of our shop that was almost 100% manual operations," says Herman Adams, the plant's body shop maintenance planner. "The rest of our shop was about 95% automation, so it was a really stark contrast."

While robots now do nearly 100% of the work in the body shop at BMW Spartanburg, it's a completely different story on the assembly lines. Walk the floor of Spartanburg's two mammoth assembly halls, observes Erik Nieves, technology director for Yaskawa America Inc.'s Motoman Robotics Division, and you see "an army of biology." Although automation undoubtedly plays a role in vehicle assembly at BMW Spartanburg -- a robotic arm, for example, plunks the sunroof into a hole on top of the BMW X3 -- the final-assembly process is largely the domain of people. And it's no different at any other major automotive plant. Consequently, Nieves believes that the future of robotics is about finding a way to move robots "to the other side of the wall" -- to the assembly line.
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