How robotics change the trailer manufacturing industry

From the March 2012 issue.

In modern trailer manufacturing, robots can help a company improve production speed, reduce costs and lift build quality to a new level.

It would be tough to find an industry more evocative of solid, old school production than the trailer manufacturing one. No one walking onto a low-light, high-decibel factory floor is likely to mistake the place for a clean room at a semiconductor manufacturing plant. But, modern robotics are now changing that image.

Science fiction can cause some confusing impressions. For instance, current robotic technology does not involve creating a humanoid workforce; and characters such as “Star Wars” icons, C3PO and R2D2 - although invented in 1977 - are still a long way off. But, even the conservative trailer manufacturing industry opened up to modern robotics long ago to streamline the production process.

Derived from the Czech word robotnik, the term robot is generally translated as forced labour. And, that basic idea has not changed since factories first introduced modern industrial robots in 1961. That’s when Unimate joined the General Motors (GM) workforce - a robotic arm attached to a giant steel drum. The Unimate robot boasted remarkable versatility for the time and could easily pour liquid metal into die casts, weld auto bodies together and manipulate 500-pound (227kg) payloads.

“They were good for the ‘three D’ kinds of jobs,” Steve Holland, chief scientist for manufacturing at US corporation GM, recalls in a US News interview. “Jobs that were dirty, difficult, and dangerous.” In addition, Unimate could perform tasks that humans often found dangerous or boring and it could do them with consistent speed and precision. Plus, it never called in sick, went on strike or violated company rules. It covered all three shifts in a 24-hour period without drawing a single minute of overtime.

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