Our vehicles have all faced hazards at one time or another, from potholes in the road to rocks or broken glass. But what about protection when the hazards are ballistic threats to the safety of civil servants or service men and women?

As a specialist for custom automobile protection solutions, IndiKar Individual Karroseriebau manufactures high-strength components that keep vehicles safe from a multitude of ballistic threats. The hot-shaping process, in which an ABB IRB 7600 robot plays a decisive role, gives the car body steel components their highest possible strength.

Anyone developing and producing special protection civil vehicles must possess complex professional expertise. On the one hand, the visual appearance and ergonomics of the vehicles must be maintained, on the other the vehicles must provide sufficient protection against firearms and explosions. In short, it is all about the middle ground between comfort and safety.

Heating up to 1,000°C

IndiKar, headquartered in the Saxon town of Wilkau-Haßlau in Germany, manufactures, among other things, steel components from a specially developed high-strength alloy. Components made from this steel can prevent projectiles from penetrating the bodywork. IndiKar relies on press hardening as a production process.

During this process, the blanks are initially heated to just under 1,000°C and then shaped using a press. During the pressing process, the components cool down and harden completely. IndiKar opened its press-hardening technology centre at the beginning of 2017, and now singlehandedly carries out all the hot shaping of materials to protect against ballistic attacks. An ABB IRB 7600 plays a central role in the automation solution, picking up the steel blanks provided by a production associate and initially placing them in an oven, which brings the blanks up to temperature. Then the robot picks up the glowing metal blanks and places them in a press weighting 1,000 T, which forms finished components out of the blanks.

Robots with precision handling

There are several reasons why IndiKar has chosen robot automation for certain hot-shaping process steps. In terms of simple workplace safety, people are not able to manually handle the glowing metal blanks, which can weigh up to 100kg each. In addition, quick handling and high repeatability are required when taking the blanks out of the oven and inserting them into the press.

“The fact that the component should only cool down as little as possible on the way from the oven to the press is a decisive quality factor for the later end product”, says Philipp Baumann, who is responsible for sales and marketing at IndiKar. “With the robot, we not only increase the picking speed from the oven, but also the precision during the process of loading the press, which allows for the high component accuracy.”
In order to optimise the process even further, a gripper with low heat dissipation is mounted on the IRB 7600 and the oven opens very quickly thanks to a power assistance feature. The fact that the robot is mounted on a traversing unit provides additional range. “With the robot, we increase the precision when inserting the steel blanks into the press,” added Baumann.

Intelligent software

IndiKar’s plant is the first use of a stamp-pack function package in Germany. The unique ABB solution was installed by system integrator AED Automation, and the core of this flexible solution for punching and shaping processes is the StampApp software. “Thanks to StampApp, we no longer need a separate programmable logic controller and a line controller for the bench from which the robot grabs the blanks, the oven or the press,” explains Conrad Ender from Technical Sales Support – Welding & Cutting at ABB. “The devices transmit their status directly to the robot controller.”

A process matrix is stored in the software and the individual stations can communicate directly with each other. For example, the robot only picks up a steel blank and places it in the oven when it receives the signal that the bench is loaded and the furnace is at temperature. Another advantage is that changes to the programming can be made directly via the manual control unit. This shortens the time for commissioning and for subsequent process adjustments.

“StampApp creates a virtual image of the actual plant,” says Ender. “The graphical user interface allows the individual points of the robot path to be programmed visually rather than purely code-based.”

Flexibility to meet demands

The partially automated system for press hardening is ideally tailored to the needs of IndiKar, and provides impressive flexibility. In addition to hot forming, the solution also makes it possible, when desirable, to cold-form the components.

Likewise, the ABB robot is able to operate a second oven to shorten the cycle times, when necessary. “As a specialist in providing unique and high-quality solutions for small production runs, it is critical for us to have manufacturing precision and flexibility to meet the exacting demands of automakers for special protection vehicles,” says Indikar’s Baumann. “We always offer our customers the ideal compromise in terms of material thickness here: as thick as necessary, but as thin and lightweight as possible.”

RobotWare StampApp

For smaller manufacturers without a lot of robot experience, the engineering and programming of new stamping applications can be feared as a complex and time-consuming task. But what if it were possible for customers to receive a robot Monday morning, do the mechanical and electrical installation that afternoon, and then program the robot and start test production by Tuesday night?

This is why ABB created its RobotWare StampApp software solution – to reduce the time and difficulty of implementing new robot press tending cells.

Engineering is simplified through pre-tested modules for conveyors, presses, de-tacking tables and other standard modules that are commonly part of press-tending applications; all of these elements are integrated into the software. There is also no need to use a Programmable Logic Controller for commissioning as all commands are handled by the robot, for example start and stop signals for devices in the application cell.

RobotWare StampApp also simplifies programming through icons with pre-defined paths, so operators do not need to be experts in high-level programming languages. Robots are programmed by simply moving them to the desired positions, which are then saved into an application sequence – the programming logic behind all these movements is already defined.

Lastly, operation of the completed applications and changeovers are simplified through an intuitive graphical production interface that even non-skilled workers can use. The reduction of programming and commissioning times is a cost saver for customers, and greater uptime for the press means more parts can be produced.

RobotWare StampApp is helping to break the myth that engineering and robot programming is a difficult burden for less robot-experienced and smaller manufacturing shops. At the same time, ABB has received several orders from large automotive OEMs who also appreciate the benefits of simplification in their engineering processes.