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.
“Needless to say, factory owners grew to like this no-nonsense new addition,” says science journalist James Pethokoukis. “Robot factory workers aren’t without their limitations, however. In their simplest forms, industrial robots are mere automatons. Humans program them to perform a simple, repetitive task. Tasks that require decision-making, creativity, adaptation and on-the-job learning tend to go to the humans.”
But, when a job is just right for a robot, productivity tends to increase notably. For instance, Australia’s Drake Trailers installed a single welding robot by ABB Australia on its production line in 2008 and benefited from a reported 60 per cent increase in productivity.
When Drake Trailers took some time to consider the best configuration for automating certain aspects of production, a robot was identified as the most suitable option for factors such as speed, which could help them compete on price, based on lower unit costs in addition to quality improvement that provided benefits such as better finish and repeatability.
That last factor is a key benefit. Due to the robot, which went live in May 2009, less handling is required when machining the suspension components, skid plates, ramps and up to 60 items that Drake has identified, which can be jigged for use with the dual station robot.
One welding station has a single axis L-type positioner with 2000kg payload capacity. The second has a dual axis A-type positioner, boasting a 750kg payload capacity, used for welding more complex components. As for weld speeds, a quality manual welder can span 250-300mm per minute while the ABB robot manages 750-800 a minute, ABB reports.
It is the cutting and welding process that has seen the largest increase in robotic technology in the past decade or two, as it not only increases production speed compared to manual welding, but also creates a cleaner and safer welding environment.
One global company that is specialised in the automation for non-repetitive production environments like the trailer industry is Dutch company Kranendonk. “We work for the shipbuilding, construction and transport industries, where every manufactured product is different,” says Kranendonk’s Edwin Oosterveld, pointing out that a company needs to reach a certain level of automation to justify the implementation of complex robotic systems, some of which can take up to three years to develop. “We usually require a certain level of what we call software strength,” he says. “But, first and foremost, there must be pioneering spirit and openness to change.
“We have just developed two computerised production lines in Australia and Belgium to help our local clientele automate the production of a wide variety of aluminium-based trailers.” Kranendonk responded with an overall approach to improve both material and data flows, creating some of the most effective production lines in the trailer industry.
A typical line consists of several sub-systems to streamline trailer construction. “Apart from the actual production automation, large benefits are gained through the control of this production line,” says Oosterveld. “The process is based on a specially-designed configurator software that allows the sales team to specify all characteristics and main dimensions of the new trailer on screen. The software is then able to generate the production data required to build the trailer – including CAD drawings – without human intervention.”
A typical Kranendonk production line is an array of what Oosterveld calls “dedicated production cells.” First they create the basic chassis by joining floor and side panels, which is then forwarded to a tub welding station. “That’s probably the most impressive part of the whole production process,” says Oosterveld. “One single robot is finishing off the entire welding work on the inside, entering from the top.
“As mentioned, no robot programming is needed for the operation of the production cells, all production data is automatically generated and only general supervision is required.”
In Belgium, Kranendonk re-designed the whole shop floor to cater for a modernised production facility. “The final system consists of various robot stations and some CNC-controlled cells,” says Oosterveld. “And, to finish the welding on all sides of the trailer, we decided on mobile robot cells.”
Multiple ‘travelling columns’, each supporting a welding robot, are used to allow for the welding of all major components. “Our software makes sure the operators only need to select a certain production task, but do not have to worry about programming the system. Even the most complex trailers featuring intricate, curved lines are produced automatically.”
According to Oosterveld, no more than two people operate the entire trailer production line – producing up to six trailers per shift. But, it is such rationalisation that may lead to the obvious question that workers have been asking since the late 1700s – “Will machines steal our jobs?”
Back in 1779, Ned Lud started the anti-automation movement that later came to be known as Luddism by breaking into factories in Nottingham, England and destroying the new weaving machines that were replacing workers.
Marshall Brain, founder of the online encyclopaedia, HowStuffWorks.com, has written an influential online manifesto called “Robotic Nation” in which he concludes that the greater presence of robots in the workplace will lead to massive unemployment over the coming decades. “The jobless recovery is exactly what you would expect in a robotic nation,” he writes.