As one of the most highly automated industries in the world, the automotive sector has made use of industrial robotics since GM introduced robotics systems to their manufacturing process in 1961. Today, robots are being employed in the automotive industry for far more sophisticated tasks besides painting and welding, with robots interacting seamlessly with human workers. Collaborative robots, AGVs, robotic vision technology and exoskeletons are just a few of the latest robotics technologies that are shaping the present and future of auto manufacturing.
Since the 1980s, welding has been one of the most significant applications of robotics in the automotive sector. Today, six-axis robotic welds are able to perform welding techniques ranging from friction and laser to complete bodywork solutions. Robotic welders and handlers work collaboratively on assembly lines, streamlining production and improving the speed and quality of the welding.
Dan Grieshaber, the global director of manufacturing engineering integration at General Motors, describes collaborative robots, also known as "cobots," as a “fundamental game-changer” in the industry. The The “collaborative” aspect of the phrase refers to robots that are designed to work safely with human employees, via the use of sophisticated sensors that allow them to monitor human location and react to human contact. Cobots are augmenting the skills of their human counterparts by acting as assistants, leading to more efficient production. Collaborative robots learn through simulation and require minimal programming, and do not need to be monitored constantly by technicians, freeing up the valuable time and energy of highly skilled workers for other tasks. In contrast to the bulky industrial robots of the 2000s, cobots tend to be highly dexterous and compact, making them a sleek, efficient option for the factory floor.
Self-guided vehicles, known as AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles) are ideal for transporting heavy materials and loads, making them well suited for automotive manufacturing applications. Operator-free forklift-sized carriers have grown in popularity over the last several years in production facilities. The carrier are frequently reliant on software to navigate, in addition to being assisted by magnetic strips or lasers. 3D map technology, enables AGVs to carry goods over short-to-medium distances. From the transport of cars and components, to the synchronization of the chassis and the car body, AGVs are optimizing a variety of different work processes in the automotive industry.
While robotic arms handle most automotive operations, many tasks on the assembly line are still accomplished manually. Exoskeletons, a form of wearable robotics, can be used to reduce human fatigue and improve the safety of repetitive manufacturing tasks. Alongside NASA, General Motors has developed the RoboGlove. The glove is "...driven by a mechanical delivery system that you wear on your back like a knapsack, and it increases your grip strength,” Grieshaber explained. The "gripper" contains sensors, simulated nerves, muscles, actuators and tendons that increase hand dexterity and reduce fatigue.
Robotics 2.0 and the development of bots with "eyes" has enabled robots to handle greater levels of variance using both 2D and 3D perception. OpenCV (Open Source Computer Vision), which offers free software for computer vision developers that make use of real-time image processing, is driving the fast paced development of robotic vision. Robotic vision technology is enabling robots to be more accurate when installing car parts such as windshields, door panels, and fenders.
Since the earliest days of robotics integration in the automotive manufacturing industry, robots have been improving safety and efficiency in manufacturing. Today, AGVs, auto welders, exoskeletons and robotic vision are just a few of the cutting edge robotics technologies driving the automotive industry into the future.