Collaborative robots or co-bots for short are increasingly becoming popular for industry applications. They have the potential to make life much easier for humans on a production line, like pick and place, injection molding and other jobs that are considered less than desirable for humans. However, most robots on production lines do not have the ability to stop or subtly adjust their motion when someone gets in the way and requires a cordoned off space to operate in order to ensure the safety of its human counterparts. Well, Ford Motor Company thinks it's found a way around this problem. The company is now using collaborative robots at its plant in Cologne, Germany to help assembly-line staff fit shock absorbers to Fiesta cars as part of a trial in the company’s investigation into what Ford calls Industry 4.0, the fourth industrial revolution embracing automation, data exchange and manufacturing technologies.
Ford’s new assembly line robot program was developed over the course of two years with KUKA Roboter Gmbh, a German robotics company with the intention of assisting human line workers.
It’s a job requiring unerring accuracy, strength and dexterity, and the co-bots ensure ideal fit and relieve workers from having to access hard-to-reach places. According to Ford, it is among the first automakers to develop the trial with a series of co-bots and humans working together on the assembly line.
Vehicle Operation Director Karl Anton says Ford of Europe procured feedback from more than 1,000 production-line workers in its Cologne, Germany facility to identify tasks they believe robots that come equipped with a human-like hand could be best suited to.
Tasks that could be automated in the future include interior assembly, expecting robots have access to extremely dexterous end-effectors and are optimally mounted.
The 3.3 ft. (1-m) tall robots from KUKA operate side-by-side with humans in strategically placed mounts at two work stations. Rather than manipulating a heavy shock absorber and installation tool, the workers use the robot to lift and automatically position shock absorbers into the vehicle’s wheel arch, before pushing a button to complete installation.
To ensure safety of the workers, the robots utilize high-tech sensors to immediately stop if they detect an obstruction, like a human body, in their path. They can even high-five each other after the completion of the job.
In addition to heavy lifting, the automaker says it is looking at further use of robots programmed to perform tasks ranging from making coffee to shaking hands as well as other delicate tasks. According to Ford, the robots can result in faster, safer and top quality vehicle assembly, as well as making the process easier for workers in the assembly line.
While the co-bots are only in use at the Cologne factory currently, they might as well end up in other locations in the near future. The company is also looking at how they could be enforced at North American factories, according to Kelli Felker, Ford's manufacturing and labor communications manager.