“We are having conversations with many car makers who are looking for expertise on how to organise the shift to manufacture of electrified cars. This is a big challenge for them,” said Joerg Reger, ABB’s managing director of automotive robotics.
Automotive industry consultant Peter Wells of Cardiff Business School agrees there is a need for car plants to find new ways to build electric cars and believes automation companies like ABB are “pushing on an open door” as OEMs grapple with implementing major changes in their manufacturing operations.
“The push for more flexible assembly systems is ongoing,” said Wells, “and is well suited to battery-electric cars as the core platform [including battery pack, motors etc] stays much the same.”
Wells is referring to the possibilities of spinning multiple body variants off a skateboard-type chassis platform built around a standardised battery pack, and occupying less factory space than is typical today.
Audi demonstrated a version of the flexible cell-manufacturing system to the media in 2018, as part of a proposed ‘Industry 4.0’ rethink that links smart automation equipment to high-power data processing and artificial intelligence.
In a fully implemented version of ABB’s HSFS system, the body-in-white construction and final assembly would be organised into robotic cells operating flexibly, with some cells capable of multiple operations.
There might even be two cells operating side by side completing the same procedures, if the process is sufficiently complex and time-consuming to warrant doubling up. In a conventional plant, that would be highly unusual.
A key change to the traditional way of working would be to break away from the standardised ‘tact’ time, typically one minute in a high-volume car plant. “It is possible to split a one-minute operation into two 30-second operations, and maybe changeover tools, and add an extra step into the process,” said Reger.
Parts and modules to feed into the assembly cells would be stored in the assembly building within easy reach of automated guided vehicles and parts would be picked into a complete component set, which would follow the car on AGVs as it moved between manufacturing cells.