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Robotics on the rise in manufacturing facilities

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Robots perform welding tasks and put the doors onto cars at a Volvo manufacturing facility in Sweden. The automaker plans to deploy the same automation technology at its new Berkeley County plant. The robots prevent workers from having to handle large welding guns while squeezing into tight spots and twisting their bodies for long periods of time to complete a task. (Photo/Volvo Cars)

Robots will play a big role in the production of Volvo Cars’ first-ever S60 sedans once the automaker’s $600 million manufacturing campus is up and running in 2018.

Welding, body work, assembly work and paint processes will all involve automation. The automaker expects to have at least 280 robots at the Berkeley County site, although that number will fluctuate with production rates, according to Christer Wikstrom, the head of manufacturing engineering at Volvo Car Group in Sweden.

Volvo has used robots to make cars for decades. Some processes — such as the welding of metal parts and the measuring, placing and bolting of the doors to the cars — are now completely automated, Wikstrom said.

Without the robots, workers would have to handle very large welding guns while squeezing into tight spots and twisting their bodies into certain positions. Wikstrom said any part of the production process that can be dangerous for workers — when they are working under a car, for example — is an opportunity to integrate robots.

“Automation eliminates very heavy work for operators,” Wikstrom said. “It’s good from a quality point of view, a volume point of view and an ergonomic point of view.”

Automation has its perks: Robots are efficient; they do not need sleep or breaks; and they rarely make mistakes. They also keep workers from having as many ergonomic issues on the assembly line.

Robots also have drawbacks, including concerns about worker morale and job security, as well as making sure workers do not get hurt by being in the path of a working robot.

Wikstrom said workers are still needed in the production process. Maintenance technicians and operators make sure the robots, parts and computerized sequences are correct as they come down the line, while the robots handle much of the manual labor.

More automation requires a more skilled, specialized workforce, he said.

“Automation will never fully replace all of the operators on a line,” Wikstrom said. “We are always dependent on skilled operators and maintenance around everything. ... The more automation you put into your process, the more complex it becomes.

So we need to get the correct skills in maintenance (workers) and operators to operate the automation.”

'A seamless transition’

Mercedes-Benz Vans also plans to use more robotics in its $500 million manufacturing campus under construction in North Charleston.

The plant will build the next generation of Sprinter vans from start to finish, rather than its current operation of reassembling those vehicles after they arrive in pieces from Europe. The site will also reassemble Metris vans.

At its existing operation in North Charleston, Mercedes’ robots, known as automatically guided vehicles, pick up parts from unloaded shipping containers and move them around the manufacturing facility.

Automatically guided vehicles will be used more broadly at the new campus. The robots will be tasked with lifting the bodies of the vans and taking them from the paint shop to the assembly line, where interior parts can be added.

This will allow “for a seamless transition from one stage of production to the next,” Mercedes-Benz Vans spokeswoman Alyssa Hasell said in an email.

“The new plant will be one of the most advanced automotive manufacturing facilities in the U.S.,” Hasell said. “Automation and robotics will be a factor of that, but mainly to alleviate ergonomic and safety concerns if a human were to perform certain tasks rather than a robot or AGV.”

'The real robotics revolution’

Larry Sweet, associate director of Georgia Tech’s Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines, said more industries are integrating robotics into their processes.

Automation is popping up in agriculture, food service, health care, banking and food manufacturing sectors, said Sweet, who spent 30 years working in robotics in the private sector.

Boeing South Carolina integrated a new robot into its Dreamliner production in North Charleston earlier this year. The Quadbot has four, spinning arms that can affix thousands of fasteners to airplane parts faster than humans or previous machines. (Photo/Kim McManus)He said companies also are increasing the number of robots they have in their facilities. The Boston Consulting Group released a study projecting a 10% annual growth rate globally in robotics, up from 3%. The study predicts some industries will use robots to perform more than 40% of manufacturing tasks.

“The real robotics revolution is ready to begin,” the study said. “Many industries are reaching an inflection point at which, for the first time, an attractive return on investment is possible for replacing manual labor with machines on a wide scale. ... This development will power dramatic gains in labor productivity in many industries around the world.”

Boeing South Carolina has seen productivity gains with a new robot it integrated into its 787 Dreamliner production line earlier this year.

The Quadbot, a machine made by Electroimpact, sits inside the aft-body facility. Its four robotic arms swivel quickly, drilling holes and placing 2,800 fasteners on a rear section of the Dreamliner jet.

The robot is capable of finishing that work in 1.5 days — down from five days on the previous machine — and it installs 900 more fasteners. The robot’s drilling and fastening speed decreases work for mechanics down the line and supports faster production rates.

“It does a lot more work in a lot less time,” Mike Bunker, the director of 787 aft-body operations for Boeing SC, said during a facility tour in February.

‘You have to have the people’

Sweet from Georgia Tech said improvements in robot capabilities are driving the growth in automation. Humans provide the cognitive capabilities and critical thinking skills, and robots provide the predictability and tireless repetition.

As robots become safer, humans can operate around them and with them.

“The idea is for the robot and human to share the tasks,” Sweet said. “It’s not about eliminating the human from the process; it’s about using robots to make the human more productive. ... If companies can bring in collaborative robots to assist humans, it can relieve some of the bottlenecks caused in production or by space constraints.”

Robots can replace difficult or unsafe tasks in manufacturing facilities, they can reduce the number of employees needed on factory floors, and they can create other jobs for skilled technicians or salespeople as rates increase, he said.

“It is very important to get the workers’ acceptance as much as you can. Not all the workers will make the transition work,” Sweet said. “Companies need people, processes and technology. You have to have the people, and with robots, you need more training, culture and motivation. Without that, it doesn’t work very well.”

Reach Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119.

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