Robotics Today

Not all that long ago, industrial robots were the stuff of amazement. Now they’re essential in body shops the world over. What’s ahead?

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According to the Robotic Industries Association (RIA; robotics.org), the trade association for the industry in question, when it comes to the auto industry, “it is still the largest industry in terms of volume for robotics.” When RIA describes what’s going on in the market, it groups various other segments under the title “Non-Automotive Industries,” which gives you a sense of just how significant the auto industry is to robotic automation. 

Neil Dueweke has been in robotics for over 25 years. At FANUC America (robot.fanucamerica.com), Dueweke heads up two groups. One is focused on the automotive body shop, where a team of engineers is working on the development of the ways and means of assessing how vehicles are being put together—and how robotics can facilitate these operations. The other group he’s the general manager of is titled “New Domestics,” which Dueweke says are those companies—OEMs and suppliers—that are headquartered outside of North America but with manufacturing operations in the continent.

Dueweke has been in the business long enough that robots in the body shop are the rule, not the exception. Which sort of gets to the RIA’s acknowledgment of the importance of auto to North American sales, where spot welding, assembly and material handling—all key body shop operations—tend to be the biggest areas of investment.

While there is still the now-expected spot welding in great numbers in body shops, Dueweke says that they’re beginning to see “a much more diverse set of joining techniques” occurring there, which is having an effect on the expectations of what a robot can do: “Robots are being called on to do more than move two inches to a spot, let a C-gun pass current through two pieces of metal, then move another two inches and so on.”

Tack Attach. For example, he sees a greater use of mechanical fasteners being used, as in rivets and RIVTAC tacks (bollhoff-usa.com). Speaking to the tacks, Dueweke says that an increasing number of automakers are looking at the process, which essentially involves shooting a tack into the pieces of metal to be joined. The approach is to apply an adhesive to a piece of material, joining it with the material it is to be attached to, then shooting the tack into the surface. The tack works to hold the two pieces together while the adhesive cures.

Whether it is rivets or tacks, he explains, they’re working to find the ways to effectively feed the fasteners through or to the robot, which can mean designing robot arms that can serve as conduits for feeding hoses, lines and wires.

And he points out, “In cases where the robot has to press on the part as part of the joining process, it has to be designed for rigidity so that the robot doesn’t skate or move in any discernable way during the operation.”

One facilitator to all of this, Dueweke explains, are control mechanisms, the closed-loop servo systems.

However, he says that the design of arms is getting more difficult as on the one hand there is a need to have a low mass for purposes of speed but the ability to withstand reaction forces when they’re being used as part of the process. And another key factor—an increasingly important one—is durability.

“The days of having part of a Saturday or Sunday to do maintenance are going away,” Dueweke says, adding, “You don’t know how many times I’ve heard from a maintenance manager, ‘We don’t have time for maintenance.’”
 

Getting to Zero. So part of the burden is borne by companies like FANUC to help assure maximum uptime. This led the company to work with the networking giant Cisco (cisco.com) on an initiative called “ZDT” or “Zero Downtime.”

Dueweke says that there are over 6,000 robots working in 26 different automotive plants that are part of the ZDT program. This means that the robots are being monitored. “We are looking for trending—any change in the performance of the mechanicals or torque levels or other factors that may be an indicator that something is wearing or going wrong,” Dueweke says. Should they find an indication that something is awry, maintenance personnel are notified so that the equipment can be dealt with before any unexpected failure occurs, thereby reducing unanticipated downtime.

If ZDT is a version of IoT—a.k.a., the Internet of Things—then LVC is a development on the way to machine learning or artificial intelligence.

Dueweke says that LVC—Learning Vibration Control—was introduced a couple years ago to help optimize cycle times. He says that if a robot was taught a path that lasted 25 seconds and a faster cycle was desired, then an accelerometer would be attached to the robot arm and the robot would be run through 20 or so iterations of the path, with vibrations being measured. It isn’t just about going fast, but going fast in such a way that while cycle time is minimized there would be high expectancy for the life of the robot joints and drivetrain. With LVC the robot would “learn” the optimum path.

Smarter and Smarter. FANUC is now working with a deep-learning company based in Japan, Preferred Networks (preferred-networks.jp/en), with a goal, Dueweke says, to have the robot not simply optimize a taught path but to actually program itself. (Preferred Networks is also part of FANUC’s initiative, along with Cisco and Rockwell Automation (rockwellautomation.com), called “FIELD,” or FANUC Intelligent Edge Link and Drive system, which connects robots, CNC units, peripherals and sensors.

Through networking and monitoring of the devices the objective is to increase overall equipment efficiency (OEE), which can contribute to increased cost savings in manufacturing operations.)

While in the early days of robotics spot welding robots were thought to be de rigeur for seemingly factories of all types, the current trend is for collaborative robots. One of the problems with the early robots is that they were often improperly applied, thereby leading to a great deal of criticism of the technology, which dissipated as people figured out what robots can and can’t do. So the collaborative robot may be in the same situation right now.
 

Working Together. Dueweke says that FANUC has a collaborative robot, the CR35iA, which was engineered to be more than something of a lab-like machine, as it has a 35-kg capacity. The CR35iA is engineered to work alongside people (it has ISO 10218-1:2011 safety certification), and even has a “soft” exterior surface so that if a worker comes in contact it won’t be like skin hitting metal; it also slows to a stop in case of a collision. Dueweke says that they’ll be coming out with a full series of machines that can work along with human workers. “While it took six or seven years for the early body shop people to find the good applications for robotic spot welding, I think three years from now you’ll be surprised how many collaborative robots will be in applications.”

Looking further to the future, Dueweke says that mobile robots will have a huge impact on manufacturing a couple of decades from now. “You may bring the robot to the workpiece rather than the other way around,” he says. Or maybe the robot will bring itself to the workpiece.