Ford and its partner Changan are meeting the demands of a new consumer with automation from ABB Robotics
 “The economic downturn has been tough on automakers and has highlighted the need to be more adaptive to the demands of the market,” says Yuan HengXin, Manufacturing Engineering manager for Changan Ford. “In order to remain ahead of the competition, we need to bring new products to the market faster.”

ABB Robotics and Ford have had strong relationship for many years. This collaboration continues in Chongqing, China, where the Changan-Ford joint venture is using flexible production lines to produce some of its newest models – including the popular Fusion/Mondeo. ABB has responded to the needs of body-in-white customers with a technology principle called ‘FlexLean’,” says Alan Stapelberg, ABB Robotics Body-in-White product manager. “This philosophy uses robotics technology to replace traditional custom made machinery with standardised solutions. These products are modular in design and flexible – allowing multiple car models to be produced on the same line and new models to be added easily.”


Flexibility, standardisation & integration
The new ABB FlexLean body-in-white line at the Chongqing factory has permitted Changan-Ford to accomplish two important tasks in modernising their global production techniques.

“By standardising our production globally and communising the platforms across factories, we can reuse the investment over several models and produce the same model in different plants around the world,” says Yuan. “At the same time, we are employing flexible production technologies that allow us to build different car models with the same machinery, thus sharing the investment over the models and shortening the lead time to launch new models.”

This has enabled Changan-Ford to ramp up production of successful models faster by using the capacity of all the production lines in a given region. This means higher utilisation of their investment and faster response times to fluctuating market demands.

FlexLean in action 
FlexLean products include the new GateFramer supported by the FlexTrack, FlexPLP and Roller Hemming. The BIW line at the Chongqing factory also includes robotic laser brazing, welding and cutting cells, a grinding cell and a seam sealing cell.

 “Framing is the heart of the production line where the geometry of the car is set,” says Stapelberg. “ABB's GateFramer allows for framing of up to six different models on the same line with less than 18 second changeover time and completely random model production. It also allows for rapid introduction of new models to the line in just a few hours.” [sam_ad id=17 codes='true']

Throughout this process, the company’s FlexTrack ensures smooth, reliable and programmable transitions between work stations. Each station is also equipped with a flexible tooling system, the FlexPLP. These small robots are located underneath the car allowing for cars of different lengths and widths to be held in the station during the assembly. 

In Chongqing, the benefits of a flexible production line are clear: “We can introduce new models within hours, simply by ‘configuring the line’ for production of the next model, while still being able to produce the existing models during the introduction of new models,” says Yuan. “This allows the phase-in of new models, and the phase-out of old models directly driven by the market demand, and not by production capacity, lead time or a need to wait for infrastructure build-up.”