Robotic arms swing across assembly lines with high precision, move automotive body elements, perform spot-welding jobs. Automatic guided vehicles are scurrying around them. The production sites of automakers appear almost like scenes in science fiction movies. “The automotive industry effectively invented automated manufacturing. Today, robots are playing a vital role in enabling this industry’s transition from combustion engines to electric power. Robotic automation helps car manufacturers manage the wholesale changes to long-established manufacturing methods and technologies,” says Marina Bill, President of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR).
One million industrial robots are currently working in the factories of the automotive industry around the globe. That roughly equates to one third of the total number of all robots installed across the various industries, according to the IFR. 2,867 industrial robots per 10,000 employees were deployed in South Korea in 2021. Germany is ranked in second place with 1,500 units, followed by the United States with 1,457 units and Japan with 1,422 units per 10,000 workers. The world’s biggest automaker, China, is currently recording a robotic density of 772 units and catching up: within the space of one year, the number of newly installed robots has almost doubled in the Chinese auto industry to 61,598 units – equating to 52 % of the total of 119,405 units that were installed in factories worldwide in 2021.
Automation is the big winner in the transformation process toward electrified mobility – that’s the key conclusion of a new study titled “Drive in change” by the German Mechanical Engineering Association (VDMA). It says that classic machines for metal cutting are gradually losing importance due the elimination of the conventional powertrain. Dr. Joachim Döhner, Chairman of the Board of VDMA Battery Production and Senior Director Business Development Battery at robotics manufacturer KUKA, explains: “Especially as a result of battery technology other processes become relevant that make completely new demands on automation and process management. For this purpose, machines with maximum flexibility and efficiency are needed like robots or even more flexible cobots, in other words compact robots that directly work together with humans.”
For Ralf Moseberg, Senior Vice President Industrial Automation at global automotive and industrial supplier Schaeffler, flexibility on the factory floor is becoming an increasingly important enabler and success factor as well, especially in the volatile automotive sector: “It’s becoming increasingly decisive for vehicle manufacturers to be able to produce several models on the same production line without major conversions. The keyword is mass customization, which describes the personalization of mass products based on customer wishes. Talking about individual options: customers should receive precisely the product they desire. Due to the transformation toward electric mobility, now is exactly the right time for investing in order to re-plan production lines from scratch with flexibly programmable robotics.”
Next big thing: drag-and-dop robotic programming
A need to catch up does exist because classic industrial robots frequently continue to be programmed by means of textual languages. That requires experts, takes time, is inefficient, and so on and so forth. To drive automation, it makes sense to create a robotics world in which everything fits together at the push of a button, is ready to run right away and can be controlled intuitively. “That’s exactly what we’re working on, enabling even non-experts without prior knowledge and programming experience to create a fully functional robotics application from suitable components with just a few clicks,” explains Dr. Joachim Döhner. “Initial products enabling motion sequences to simply be reprogrammed by means of drag and drop in the event of frequent workpiece changes are already available. They’re fully usable without any technical languages.” Even a visual adaptation of demonstrated movements is supposed to be possible in the future.
“Humans will never become redundant because they always have to ‘train’ robots. Robots will never be able to do that on their own. Time will tell whether an AI will be able to do that soon. Until then, the paradox of automation will apply. The greater the level of automation and technical potential the more important the role of humans as a controlling and monitoring authority”Dr. Joachim Döhner, Senior Director Global Sales at KUKA
Battery recycling is a central challenge posed by the transformation process toward electric mobility. In Europe alone, the pile of batteries to be recycled in 2040 is going to weigh 2,100,000 metric tons (approx.2,300,000 short tons) – without robots, the dismantling of that amount of batteries cannot be handled. “More and more electric vehicles on the road will therefore lead to a new market segment for automation,” KUKA’s expert Dr. Joachim Döhner is sure. But, he adds, “Whereas the installation of batteries is a well-defined task, the condition of used batteries entails imponderables. That’s why automation and robotics help protect people against hazards such as high voltage, fire or contact with harmful substances,” says Döhner, who generally attributes a key role to robotics in the area of reusing electronic waste: “Gases such as mercury or sharp-edged components make it hazardous for humans to dismantle displays and monitors containing LCD technology. That’s an optimal use case for robotics and automation.” Irish technology company Votechnik, for instance, has developed a system with a KUKA robot that masters those challenges.
“Agile Justin” can grab things blindly
Talking about “movements”: A team at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) has managed to teach robots sensitive dexterities by means of AI. “Agile Justin,” the name that the DLR gave to the humanoid robot, has special sensors in its two four-finger robotic hands. It uses them to “feel” objects almost like a human being. Justin catches balls that are thrown toward it, recognizes materials by scanning them and rotates objects. It independently learns what’s right or wrong just by being told, for example, “Rotating the object in the specified direction is good,” and “Dropping the object is bad.” “The robot can directly execute its solutions in the real-world environment,” says Berthold Bäuml from the DLR Institute for Robotics and Mechatronics in Oberpfaffenhofen, who sees numerous use cases for it. Robotic hands with multiple fingers can assemble very complex and small parts, provided they can master flexible manipulation that’s smart by default – ideally suited for complex manufacturing processes of modern automotive production operations. But not just there. For instance, sensitive robo-assistants like that could also mitigate the shortage of nursing staff in many western countries and provide people with impairments with a higher level of autonomy in daily life again.
In spite of that or exactly because of that Döhner says, “Humans will never become redundant, they always have to ‘train’ robots. Robots will never be able to do that on their own. Time will tell whether an AI will be able to do that soon. Until then, the paradox of automation will apply. The greater the level of automation and technical potential the more important the role of humans as a controlling and monitoring authority.”
Schaeffler in robotics
“Our strategy of resolving target conflicts of the robotics industry on the product level so that manufacturers refrain from making conceptual compromises fully pays off”Ralf Moseberg, Senior Vice President Industrial Automation at Schaeffler
The “Car Transfer Unit” (CTU) operates in the plants of South-Korean automaker Hyundai-Kia Motors Corporation and at Volvo in pilot projects. “With the mechatronic CTU, various chassis can be flexibly positioned in all directions in the room. As a result, it’s easy to switch from one vehicle model to another one on an assembly line, the electronics unit calculates in nothing flat so that the robot gripper moves into a new position for the next vehicle,” explains Ralf Moseberg, Senior Vice President Industrial Automation at Schaeffler.
Schaeffler supplies the “Liftkit” and “Slidekit” subsystems as well as sensorized gearboxes for cobots performing final inspections of vehicles. The total system was developed by Hyundai-Kia and is used in mass production there. Ralf Moseberg: “Based on an innovative torque sensor unit developed by Schaeffler and integrated in our precision strain wave gears, sensitive machining, assembly and inspection tasks can be executed.”