September 19, 2020

The factory in which robots dance | Innovation

The factory in which robots dance | Innovation


In an enclosure of 30,000 mtwo operate no more than a hundred people: 92% of the processes are automated in the ship of sheet metal, the territory of large articulated arms orange. The dance is fluid and exquisite. This is The Lion King industrial and it does not seem strange that there is background music in the pavilion. High ceilings, clean light, pieces of metal flipped in the air. Choreography. Give modesty ask how the work that is sounding and filling the environment is titled. Meanwhile, and constantly, steel parts arrive from the press and they enter the welding line. Here begins the virtuous bustle of robots.

Process of the Volkswagen assembly line in Navarra.

In the plant of the polygon of Landaben, in Pamplona, ​​everything is known from the beginning: one of the keys of the digitalization of the process, fundamental in the industry 4.0, it hides in the chassis of the future vehicle, in the hollow where later the right rear wheel will go. A label with a barcode (called RFID) summarizes the model's DNA. "On that white sticker is all the information: if the car is three or five doors, if the engine is one or the other, the type of upholstery … In each work module an antenna reads the label and the robots know instantly what vehicle they are manufacturing, so that they can choose the specific program. To that label, we can also add information, so it will indicate at all times at what point the car is manufactured ", summarizes the manager of Chapistería, Juan Fernández.

Installation of the wheels.

The automatic arms continue in march and in the ship the symphony follows, that in fact has no title: simply metallic noises are heard, fans, some occasional sparkle, the delicate whistle of 861 robots in movement. Everything in order: 235 kilos of sheet metal are taking shape body.

"Industry 4.0 requires a change of concept. The technology exists, but creativity is essential to apply it to the day to day. That is our task: to invent the way to make a product come true. And the objective is that the manufacturing is autonomous and flexible, that it is self-adjusting. This requires complete and closed connectivity, which in logistics [los encargados de proveer de materiales a la fábrica], for example, are connected to each one of the sheet metal robots, "explains José Arreche, director of Planning Engineering at the Navarre plant, who repeats three words conscientiously and several times: self-organization, connectivity and automation. Meanwhile, there next to it, the robots go their own way.

"The road to automation means that this has also reached the transport and supply of materials at the foot of the line". Translated: about 60 different-sized tractor units move through several plant pavilions by means of a filoguiado system. A magnetic stripe embedded in the ground marks the route, in which the FTS (so they call it in a generic way, the German 'Fahrerlos Transport System') are reading labels-again connectivity-to make the right decisions: accelerate, stop , to turn in a crossing, to pick up a container, to abandon another … There is no risk of being run over by workers or occasional visitors. "The most important thing about this system is safety. A lower and upper laser detects obstacles and stops the machine instantly if necessary, "anticipates Santiago Herrero, logistics manager. And it's true: emergency braking works.

At the end of the day, the FTS, which can also be used with a driver, make 1,338 trips in automatic mode and travel 446 kilometers, especially in the assembly area. But there is no rush to get there. The steel skeleton, the naked body, enters before a period of strange calm to leave sheet metal; she bathes herself in paint, goes through the drying oven and dressed in her definitive suit of color, arrives at the tunnel of light, the most dazzling place in the factory. It is in a doubly literal sense, because it obfuscates the view and causes admiration in equal parts.

The ship is dark and silent, without workers, only with the bodies that arrive at the tunnel and stop at it for 18 seconds. And suddenly the light. Some 270,000 LEDs illuminate the scene and 30 cameras take 15 images per second of the body, around 8,100 in total. A computer is responsible for analyzing and finding defects from 0.2 mm in diameter, and send the information one floor below, where several workers manually resolve the detected errors. "The technology was created by the Polytechnic University of Valencia and in no factory in the world is it used with such precision as here, "says Painting Manager Francisco Rodríguez.

A car already finished.

The stillness of the light tunnel does not cease to be an equivocal parenthesis in the process. While reading the previous paragraph, a new Polo has come out of the assembly line in Pamplona. For the accounts to fit, of course, put yourself in the case that you have invested exactly 54 seconds in deciphering those nine sentences. If by a chance it occurs to check and time the reading (no reason, really), there will be another pole in Navarre soil, and so on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days, etc., except during the breaks marked by the labor agreement. 1,408 cars a day. A digital counter at the end of the line signals the relentless advance of numbers. Volkswagen Navarra's liveliest ship is actually this, the assembly, where most of the employees are concentrated in three work shifts. Although in the digitized factories the weight is carried by machines, the brain and human hands are fundamental.

Positioning of the spoiler of Polo GTI, the only process in which robots and operators complement each other in Landaben.

At a rate almost as imperturbable as that of the robots, the expert hands place the seats, the steering wheel, the lights, the central cover … Also with very little probability of error and without the chain stops. The Internet of Things makes life easier for employees. Every time a car passes by a particular point in the line, 54 seconds, the operator does not consult a paper label or a dense catalog to choose the right piece, not even look at a screen.

The Director of Planning Engineering, José Arreche, explains the operation of the Pick To Car smart shelving system: "The car automatically communicates with the piece of furniture that keeps the pieces in order and the RFID tag sends the message: I am the car 827531 X customer, and this customer has asked for a leather sports steering wheel. A little light comes on in the bookcase and the operator takes the right piece. So we avoided the possible failure to put a steering wheel that did not touch and we can also offer more flexibility to the customer without complicating our lives. "

Injection of liquids – such as windshield wipers or antifreeze – in the final phase of manufacturing a car.

There are 28 variants of steering wheel, 26 different sunshades or 24 tubes of different air conditioning, 26 types of knobs … In Logistics they put sanity to this alluvion of numbers (there are thousands of possible combinations for each Pole) by sequencing: with a reader of Bidi codes in one hand and a PDA in the other, the workers make sure that they are completing the shelves that will be next to the line. If the pieces did not arrive classified and ordered according to the flow of cars, the workers of the assembly line would go crazy.

"The factory is completely automated, except in Assembly. It is still a traditional line, but we are getting some automation: the Farber, the wheels, the collaborative robot ", anticipates José Arreche.

One of the most endearing moments for those responsible for the factory is the wedding, one every 54 seconds. The work module called Farber automatically and permanently joins the body with the chassis, already with the motor attached. The manager of Assembly, Víctor Irízar, explains the operation with a certain rapture, perhaps for the assurance that there will be no divorce. But seen from the outside, perhaps without understanding the technological depth of the matter, the ceremony is rather cold.

It is much more exciting what happens a little later with the wheels, pure filigree in the air of six robots in dance, three on each side of the line. One of them takes a 2D photograph of the wheel to determine the position of the screw holes (which varies depending on the size of the rim), the second raises the wheel and wait for the third to make a 3D photo of the body, necessary for the arm that holds the tire to place it exactly in its place. Meanwhile, the first of the robots is ready to screw. The precision is millimeter, the interaction is as natural as if they knew each other throughout life. The joint work between machines and people will be the next step. At the moment they can not share space for security reasons: as soon as an autonomous robot detects an operator, it stops.

In Landaben there is only one exception: the collaborative robot, almost at the end of the chain, a small arm responsible for putting the putty that joins the spoiler of Polo GTI to the body. Its mission is to distribute the glue thread exactly, always the same amount, so that the operator takes the spoiler and places it. It may seem like a minor task, but it is a giant step. "We come from the old school and it's hard for us to assume that a robot can work with us, this example helps us to think that they are safe and that they work well. The goal is to eliminate tasks that can be more painful for people, by repetitiveness or ergonomics, "says Arreche. It is the outline of the fifth industrial revolution, still far away: there is a long way for robots to know how to make cars by themselves.

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