Steed Webzell looks at changes in robotic automation, revealing a sector rich in innovation and one that is witnessing rapid developments in both software and hardware.

Ruthless production schedules combined with demand for unerring repeatability mean that common robot tasks in automotive manufacturing have developed far beyond spot welding to encompass applications such as arc, stud and laser welding; sealing and riveting; handling/ palletising; measuring; press-to-press automation; machine tool tending; gluing; as well as paintshop and foundry operations.

All these applications are generating healthy demand for robots with capabilities suited to the fast-paced automotive manufacturing environment. Performance is measured not just in speed but in robustness and reliability, with an emphasis on compact footprints, large work envelopes and precision movement and positioning.

The statistical department at the International Federation of Robotics expects worldwide robot sales will increase by an average of 5% per year up to 2015, by which time the annual supply of industrial robots will reach more than 200,000 units. Uptake for automotive applications continues to be high. Kuka recently won a blanket order from BMW Group to supply 2,400 generation KR Quantec industrial robots, including KR C4 controllers, which will be used mainly to join and handle body parts. Deliveries will start this year. Kuka will also supply a further 6,000 of these units to various Volkswagen factories in Germany and Eastern Europe in 2013 and 2014. Many will be used on production lines for the successor to the VW Passat’, while Audi AG will receive 2,600 of these units to help build its A4.

China, of course, is a burgeoning market and Kuka has also had success here, recently reporting an order for 300 robots from Great Wall Motor Co Ltd, a manufacturer of offroad vehicles and pick-up trucks. The robots will be used on a car body assembly line for spot and arc welding, as well as folding, gluing and handling workpieces, and linking presses.

Vauxhall reports that its commercial vehicle plant at Luton, UK is currently undergoing a project to replace the site’s 100 assembly area robots as they near the end of their planned lives. Fanuc has already been identified as the new robot supplier of choice, to will help Vauxhall assemble the 2014 Vivaro van.

Dispelling the myth that robots are only for high volume applications, Aston Martin announced recently that it has installed four wall-mounted ABB IRB 5500 robots in its base coat and clear coat painting booths in the UK. With their large working envelope, the robots paint the complete car body, covering both the chassis and the bumpers attached at front and rear Automotive manufacturing is managed through the integration of complex processes where precision and productivity are critical performance factors. This section concentrates on how robotics equipment is developing in both application and technology. Feature areas include design and development to best meet OEM requirements; optimising the design of robot cell layouts and hardware efficiency and the impact of service and maintenance on modern robotics solutions.