Guest Post by Greg Tormanen, Automotive Body And White Engineering Manager, Kawasaki Robotics

I've been playing in the automotive field since 1993. And it's been fun watching the different trends come and go. 

I’ve been observing these trends primarily from the control side, with my first involvement coming at a time when there was a simplistic 110-volt control structure and very slow, almost clunky communication protocols. Each year since then, with each major project that’s executed, it seems that there's a new technology being adopted that gradually improves the situation.

When I started out in controls, our primary task was to physically visit automotive plants. Our team would review operations and target applications and tasks that were difficult or for humans to execute as potential candidates for automation. Examples of the type of actions we looked at were when large parts were being handled, or large pinch guns were being used to weld materials; anywhere where employees could face injury on the job. We’d review each task to see what was physically straining – or dangerous – and look at options for making these actions less taxing through technology.

Once a specific task or role was targeted for automation, we used the technology available at the time – to the best of our ability – to make it happen. Over time, specific tasks became standardized as either ones for humans, or ones for machines. We didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a major transition in the field of industrial manufacturing – when there became an expectation that specific tasks would be automated and handled by machines.

Evolution of Welding

One example of the evolving technology can be seen in how the welding task has changed over the years. Welding has been a critical element of an automotive assembly line since day one. The original welding guns – in use for many years – were large in size and needed to be positioned correctly each time by a human before a weld was made. 

In fact, we used to call the old-fashioned assembly plants “Sherwood Forest.” If you can visualize it, there were very large structures with pneumatic weld guns hanging off of the overhead structure with these counterbalance cylinders. A human would be holding these very large weld guns and moving each into position to perform the welds. It resembled a forest, with hundreds of guns hanging overhead, and hundreds of humans positioning these guns, performing the tasks. It was a very interesting environment.

The use of this equipment made the outcomes very inconsistent and quality problems arose on a regular basis. As technology improved, however, there was a move from pneumatic welding guns to ones controlled by servos, which quickly improved the process. The size of the equipment was reduced, the consistency of the guns’ performance was improved, and the output was increased.

Evolution of Work

Even in the past, line workers would be acutely aware that when our team arrived to review the assembly process, the real reason we were there was to try and automate parts of it. It’s always difficult when you’re automating a job that someone is currently doing – as the immediate thought is of the human cost of the automation which might mean changing someone’s job and life. At the same time, these were very difficult jobs that were very, very hard on both the human body and spirit. Repetition and hard, physical labor can wear a person down. 

When you step back to take a look at the big picture, however, you can see along the march of progress and industrial revolutions that there have always been these big changes that redefine work along the way. Years ago the horse stables and buggy manufacturers were afraid of automobiles because of what it meant for the jobs they had been trained to do. There will always be improvements in making work easier, faster and more automated – but it’s a good reminder not to leave behind those whose roles are being automated.

Automation in Current Workplaces

I believe there are big changes on the way in the next decade. Current factory footprints are much smaller than they were a couple of decades ago. At the same time, there is an insane amount of activity happening in each assembly plant at any one time. The new technologies that have evolved over the past 5-10 years have been game-changers, allowing for deeper automation – and more of it.

I think that we're really on the cusp of a big change now with the move towards electric vehicles. That's going to bring a whole different culture to the automotive manufacturing space – and a whole different environment to look forward to. We’re already seeing new improvements in the controls used to power the equipment used. Through the years, we’ve seen communications protocols change from remote IO, to device net, to Ethernet. Electric vehicle manufacturing and adoption may also mean we see new opportunities to automate in factories, beyond what's already being done today. 

The Power of Software

Software is another great example of technology that can drive lasting change in the way automotive manufacturing is done. Realtime Robotics’ RapidPlan software, for example, is changing the equation from another approach – instead of making it less physically taxing to move equipment, it is making it easier and less repetitive for robots to be programmed.

In the 1990s, robot programming and setup was a very manual process. There was no “offline programming,” if you will. Everything was manually done by a human operator, where the human had to choose the robot positions, the speed settings, plan for accuracy, and map out robot paths for collision avoidance.

As I watched that process happen on the shop floor with the Realtime Robotics software guiding the robot motions, it was a thing of beauty. The robot motion was phenomenal; robots were interacting with each other and not crashing. 

For years, it has taken operators a great deal of skill and practice to make robot motion and planning efficient and effective. Realtime’s technology is taking away the need for that skill and decreasing the amount of time it takes to perform the task. It's amazing and almost magical for me to watch that process take place. The interactions that the robots have with each other, you're not going to get that with human programming; it really takes the software to bring it to that next level. 

In our business, automotive customers go to their integrators and ask for a specific line to be built. They describe the product they want to manufacture, in what quantity, and with what throughput. It’s then the responsibility of the integrator to design a system that makes it possible. The least amount of hardware the integrators can use in their design means the costs are kept under control, and they're more likely to win the bid. Advanced technologies like this make it possible to better control the hardware – and to use less of it, while optimizing what’s in use – making it easier to reach the desired line structure and throughput in the cost parameters given.

It dawned on me then that we were standing at the cusp of another one of those moments in the march of progress where greater things would be possible in the years to come, because of the automation I was witnessing. I was expecting the robots to be crashing and burning and the motion to be poor – but instead the robots were acting like ballerinas, and it was a thing to behold.

I think that's really where we're going to be seeing the next big changes in the automotive manufacturing and robotics industries – in the software tools that can make amazing things happen. Incremental improvements are always being made – the only true constant in automation is change.