Making automotive production fit for the future


With government legislation set to phase out the manufacture of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2030, the automotive industry is facing challenges and changes as they deploy new production structures to build the next generation of sustainable vehicles. Julian Ware, UK & Ireland Sales Manager for ABB Robotics, explains how robots are providing the flexibility needed to help manufacturers gear up for the future of automotive production. 

The global automotive manufacturing sector is undergoing a revolution. Greater public awareness of environmental issues, coupled with pledges by governments to restrict the manufacture and sale of fossil-fueled vehicles, is resulting in a shift away from conventional combustion-engine vehicles and towards electric and hydrogen-powered alternatives.

Compared to a decade ago, sales of electric vehicles have risen dramatically, from just 120,000 in 2012 to around 6.6 million in 2021. This increase has seen countries, including the UK, reach a tipping point, where it becomes economically viable for producers to increase the relative quantity of electric vehicles compared to those powered by petrol and diesel. In this period of transition, manufacturers need greater flexibility as production lines are adjusted to accommodate a mix of internal combustion and electric vehicles.

Added to this, the demand for personalisation is increasing, as customers expect more say in everything from the way their vehicle is manufactured and the type of powertrain it has, through to the colour and quality of the components, bodywork and trim.

For automotive manufacturers, this increasing demand for bespoke, individualised vehicles is a major challenge – how can they build different vehicles at scale, quickly and efficiently, while maintaining affordability?

The key is flexibility, and no production method offers this more readily than robotic automation. Used for years in welding and painting car bodies, recent developments in robots and their software and sensor abilities have made them capable of much more.

Powering the future of automotive production

As the 2030 deadline for ending the production of new internal combustion engine vehicles approaches, the demand for electric and hybrid vehicles increases.

It’s estimated that demand for fully electric vehicles (EVs) will rise from 2% at present to around 10% by 2026, while demand for ‘mild-hybrids’ is projected to shift from 3% today to around 28%. The problem for manufacturers is pinning the numbers down and building the production facilities that will be able to cope with unpredictable and possibly rapidly changing demand.

In meeting this new demand, manufacturers are faced with the need to adopt new manufacturing processes, both for converting old tasks like powertrain assembly and for new tasks such as battery assembly. Vehicle makers need to manage the transition from internal combustion engines to plug-in hybrids (PHEV) and full battery EVs (BEVs) efficiently, with the flexibility to accommodate a wide variety of options until clear market preferences emerge.

One of the most significant technologies in supporting this flexibility is the switch to more autonomous logistics and material handling in plants. Automotive manufacturers are increasingly introducing autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) to move materials flexibly, delivering components when and where they are needed.

By creating a ‘digital twin’ of the facility, using tools such as ABB’s RobotStudio offline programming software, changes can be examined and optimised beforehand, and once a cell’s design has been perfected in the virtual space, it can be quickly rolled out as a fully validated unit anywhere either within the factory or in a company’s other factories around the world. Cellular manufacturing also allows robots to be redeployed or moved to areas of high demand with a lift and shift process, meaning an asset can extend its life beyond its original purpose.

Applying the finishing touches with robots

One of the most challenging aspects of the customisation of vehicles is final trim and assembly (FTA).

For example, a robot tasked with hanging a door or bolting a dashboard must be able to follow a moving body accurately. It must be able to continuously adjust its position and speed to ensure it will not collide with the vehicle, potentially causing damage to the finished paintwork.

Added to this are the short cycle times involved – typically 60 seconds or less – during which the robot must be able to locate and reach the exact spot to secure the component to the body or interior.

This challenge is being overcome by technologies such as ABB’s Dynamic Assembly Pack solution. Combining real-time vision cameras on the robot gripper and arms with integrated force control sensors, the solution allows the robot to precisely track the position of the car body as it enters the workstation.

A universal video tracking (UVT) camera allows the robot to precisely track the position of the car body as it enters the workstation, either on an AMR or conveyor. The tracking system also synchronises its speed with that of the AMR. The camera also reports the colour of the body, ensuring that the vehicle gets the right components.

When the car body reaches a pre-defined position, another vision system, a second camera, scans it for consistent reference points, such as door edges. The camera determines whether the attachment point is where it should be and if any adjustments are needed to ensure the correct positioning of the part.

Once the robot arm gets close to the vehicle, integrated force control technology allows the robot to find its way and dock the part to the vehicle with no more than the necessary force, ensuring rapid, accurate assembly.

Any colour you want…

Gone are the days when buyers would accept any paint colour the manufacturer offered. Today, customers demand everything from two-tone finishes to special graphic designs.

Using multiple colours often involves techniques like masking. This technique needs around ten to 20 operators per shift, as well as two operators to de-mask the car after the second colour has been applied.

This is a time-consuming process, so carmakers are keen to achieve these finishes more efficiently and effectively.

With only 70 to 80% of the paint used actually applied to the bodywork, large quantities of paint are wasted, increasing costs.

ABB’s innovative PixelPaint solution incorporates a highly accurate painting inkjet head, a dosing control package and programming software for two-tone and decorative painting applications.

Rather than a conventional atomiser, paint is printed directly on the car using the printing nozzle head, resulting in complete transfer efficiency and less waste.

With no need for masking or de-masking, a customised paint job can be carried out in a single pass, reducing cycle times by around 50%.

Building in quality

One of the major tenets of the Japanese automotive industry is quality control at every stage of production.

This presents challenges for those conducting manual inspections, which can be inconsistent, untraceable and time-consuming.

ABB’s 3D Quality Inspection (3DQI) offline quality and metrology cell is designed to provide fast, accurate testing to make metrology easier and less time-consuming.

Up to ten times faster than coordinated measuring machine (CMM) systems, it can detect defects of less than half the width of a human hair. It uses a single 3D white light optical sensor to scan millions of 3D points per shot, producing a detailed digital model of the part being inspected, which can be compared to an original CAD drawing.

The solution cuts out time-consuming manual inspection while dramatically reducing the likelihood of faults and errors. As well as increasing productivity, the system also cuts costs by minimising the risk of product defects, avoiding the danger of serious faults that could lead to potential recalls.

Driving around uncertainty

The future of personal transport remains uncertain. Big questions around engine technology, changes in car ownership and demand remain, making it increasingly difficult to anticipate both the design and the demand for the cars of the future.

With the unpredictability of a highly dynamic automotive market, a drive for greater robotic automation is the route to continued success.


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