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While the race to level-5 self-driving cars continues to capture the public imagination, less is being said about the increasing automation going on behind the scenes.


Robots in automotive manufacturing is nothing new – General Motors was the first-ever company to deploy them back in 1961 – but their remit has exploded. Today they’re driving optimisation and the rethinking of processes and production in innovative new ways.

Here’s a quick guide to some of the top robotic tech shaking up the sector.

Tech 1: Collaborative robots (cobots)

Cobots
Credit: Rethink Robotics, Inc

What is it?

Designed to assist humans in mundane and strenuous high-precision tasks, cobots have a smaller footprint than existing production machinery and can learn through simulation rather than requiring programming. Thanks to sensors that react to human contact, they operate safely alongside workers on the same assembly line. Their strength, speed and force are also limited to avoid injury.

Who’s leading the tech?

ABB, Rethink Robots, KUKA, Universal Robots, FANUC, Yaskawa

How will it change the industry?

  • Allow more efficient, safer and flexible production lines
  • Enable automation of increasingly complex tasks
  • Lead to humans and robots working side-by-side

Tech 2: Automated guided vehicles (AGVs)

Seegrid vision-guided vehicle
Credit: Seegrid

What is it?

AGVs are operator-free transport systems designed to move raw material and parts repetitively over short-to-medium distances. They use lines, tape or magnet infrastructure to travel from A to B. Sensor cameras are now being added to create vision-guided vehicles (VGCs). This evolution uses 3D map technology to navigate autonomously through crowded manufacturing plants.

Who’s leading the tech?

Seegrid, Bastian Solutions, Transbotics, Daifuku, Axter, Indeva

How will it change the industry?

  • Optimise workflow processes, increase productivity and reduce costs
  • Improve workplace safety, replacing forklifts and other manual vehicles
  • Enable increasingly flexible logistics and production layouts (VGVs)

Tech 3: Painting robots

Painting robots
Credit: Durr

What is it?

Automated painting is already standard practice in the automotive industry. Robotic arms spray the bodywork, removing the need for skilled manual painters and offering a smoother, faster, more even finish. Today’s cloud-connected articulated-arm painting robots are lighter, speedier and equipped with numerous sensors and activators. They’re also easier to install and integrate.

Who’s leading the tech?

ABB, Durr, KUKA, FANUC, Kawasaki, Yaskawa Motoman

How will it change the industry?

Tech 4: Robotic vision

Robotic vision
Credit: Wiki CC 4.0

What is it?

Robot (2D and 3D) vision involves using a combination of camera hardware and computer algorithms to enable robots to process visual data from the world. It’s used in a number of ways throughout the automotive supply chain. Its main applications are ensuring the quality of the end product and enabling robots to be flexible and adaptive in part-picking and logistics.

Who’s leading the tech?

Keyence, Basler, Cognex, ISRA Vision, Omron Adept Technologies

How will it change the industry?

Tech 5: Automated welding

Automated welding
Credit: Wiki CC 2.0

What is it?

Welding robots have been used in automotive manufacturing since the 1980s, traditionally for spot and arc welding. Today’s smart six-axis robots are becoming increasingly flexible and precise. They’re able to perform a range of welding techniques from laser to friction. Welding automation is also going one step further, metamorphosing into complete bodywork solutions.

Who’s leading the tech?

Yaskawa Motoman, Comau, Kawasaki, KUKA, ABB, FANUC

How will it change the industry?

  • Improve welding quality, enabling material efficiencies and lighter cars
  • Increase the speed of multi-material vehicle production
  • Make production facilities safer, more flexible and streamlined

Robots have and will continue to drive efficiencies and cost savings in the automotive sector, as more and more processes become automated. At the same time, increasing flexibility in production will become possible – meeting today’s demands for customisation and the new era of automated cars.