Technical Article

The State of Automation in the Automotive Industry

November 04, 2019 by Georgia Kennedy

Automation is constantly evolving. How is it affecting the automotive space?

Automation is a booming industry in today’s climate. Virtual assistants are a staple in the average home. They turn off our connected lights, adjust the temperature on our smart thermostats, and recognize when we’ve arrived home. Human beings love efficiency, and this desire for productivity is not a new concept in society. As far back in written history as Homer’s The Illiad, humans have been contemplating ways to make life easier and more convenient. Homer paints the picture of the grizzled God of volcanoes, fire, and blacksmithing, Hephaestus, toiling away in his forge with the help of his creations, the automatons. These beings moved, worked, and thought with one purpose: to help their master achieve his goals.  

Today, we have thousands of creations designed for the same purpose, across millions of applications. Automation can be defined as, automatically controlled operation of an apparatus, process, or system by mechanical or electronic devices that take the place of human labor. According to Regulating the Loop: Ironies of Automation Law by Meg Leta Ambrose PhD of Georgetown University “The term automation refers to (a) the mechanization and integration of the sensing of environmental variables through artificial sensors; (b) data processing and decision making by computers; and (c) mechanical action by devices that apply forces on the environment or information action through communication to people of information processed. The term encompasses open-loop operations16 and closed loop control,  as well as intelligent systems.” 

The manufacturing industry, automotive manufacturing in particular, has taken a sincere interest in automation. The degree to which they automate can be broken down into five levels.  The lowest level is human operation of a machine, while the highest level is an AI that can solve problems and adapt to new problems without human interaction. As technology advances and becomes more affordable, it generally becomes the focus of manufacturers to move towards level 5 production.

This push towards autonomy is driven by the ever-increasing desire for product correctness, product reliability, and zero factory downtime. Tasks such as attaching tires to a finished chassis pose the problem of ensuring that the correct tire is placed on the vehicle. If a shipment of cars is sent with the wrong tire, lives are put at risk and money is lost in solving the problem. A solution for this comes from Cognex Automotive Solutions. They have designed a pattern reader that identifies the tread on the tire and matches it to the correct chassis. Additionally, if there is a defective tire on the conveyor,  their vision systems are trained to identify and remove the part quickly. This is done by taking high accuracy measurements of a correct tire and doing real time comparisons. 

Cobots, or collaborative robots, are also a solution to the automation question. These bots work in conjunction with humans to expedite many of the processes safely. Tools such as lightweight robotic arms can be used in environments requiring high levels of precision. Some examples are laser cutting rigs, and molding machines. Universal Robots in Denmark has an offering of four different arms, with payload limits ranging from 3-16 kg and six degrees of freedom. The arms provide these limits based on the application, and available footprint. For example, a tabletop arm with the purpose of placing bolts into a chassis doesn’t need to be tolerant of a large payload.

Conversely, when handling the large heavy parts such as engines, transmissions, and chassis, weight of the payload should be one of the major concerns. Part of the journey for a car in the Tesla Factory in Fremont, CA includes one large mechanical arm gripping an unfinished chassis, raising and rotating it 180*, then passing the chassis to another mechanical arm (named Iceman and Wolverine respectively). 

The machine must be able to sense the location of the chassis, grasp it without damaging or structurally compromising it, and finally interacting with a counterpart in the handoff. This precision is thanks to the horde of sensors giving the arm all required inputs. Pressure sensors in the grip determine the amount of pressure needed to keep the chassis stable without crushing or dropping the frame. Accelerometers provide information for the precise meet up point, and the speed required to get there in a timeframe ideal for production. They are comprised of 4-6 joints and can be outfitted for applications such as material handling and welding. They are stronger, faster and more precise than humans. This means they are just as adept at flipping cars as they are at placing micro components on a PCB. Consistency is ensured, and a reliable product is the expected outcome. 

When it comes to parts that require precise placement, lasers and cameras are used to gauge exact placement requirements and pressure specifications. Held aloft by suction cups, the windshield is placed and then inspected by additional computer eyes. The placement is adjusted at lightning speed, and the finished product is a seal that creates a more quiet, aerodynamic ride.  Through each placement and adjustment the machine learns where to put the windshield ad becomes more precise overtime. This is key in large scale manufacturing because time is quite literally money. Each millisecond spent doing unnecessary adjustments is time not spent creating a product. At end of year, those lost moments can potentially translate to hundreds of units not produced due to inefficiency. Whether time loss comes from inefficient work methods, or human injury the ultimate goal of every factory is zero down time. 

The automation industry commands a 70 billion dollar global market  with projected growth to reach 9% by 2024.  A few big names in the game of factory automation today are ABB, Siemens, Emerson, and Bosch. Of course there are countless startups working to find a footing in the industry as well. Augean Robotics is an agricultural automation startup whose main product is a cargo mover that follows workers freeing them for other tasks. drag&bot is a software company whose focus is making programming of automated machinery easy and intuitive. Chances are, if its a process requiring human effort, someone is out there automating it. Automation in the Automotive Industry