Automotive Robots: The First Robotic Technologies Defining an Industry

Robot Tech

Automotive robots welding a car

Automotive Robots: The First Robotic Technologies Defining an Industry

Catherine Bernier
Content Manager
Content for Cobot

Automotive manufacturing facilities were early adopters of automation, and contain large amounts of robots. Here are some ways they these automation solutions are optimized for productivity.

The automotive industry was the first to embrace the promise of industrial robotics and is one of the industrial sectors with the largest amount of them, offering daily examples of what’s possible with robotic automation today. This article describes the types of robots typically used in the industry and tips on choosing the right automotive robot project.

Automotive Robot Types

Automotive manufacturers deploy a large number of robots to tackle a range of manufacturing tasks, with each application demanding different requirements from robots. The demands of the specific application generally define the type of robot to be used. Common robot types found in the automotive industry include:

Six-Axis Robots

Six-axis robots are viewed as a jack-of-all-trades automation solution in the industry. They have a good balance of speed, reach, and payload capacity, which makes them a viable option for most applications— though there are some applications that this type can’t handle. For example, tasks that require proximity or coworking with human laborers may be unsuitable for these robots. Quality assurance applications often have a human component. Pairing a human with a six-axis robot could be dangerous. Additionally, tasks requiring a mobile component, logistics for example, are unfit for a static robot like this. The six-axis robot is the most common type found in automotive facilities. You’ll commonly find these robots in material handling applications like mounting door panels or wheels to automotive bodies. Painting and welding are other common examples of suitable tasks for six-axis robots.

Collaborative Robots

Similar to six-axis robots, collaborative robots (cobots) are solid general-purpose machines.  Similar in form and function to their larger six-axis relatives, cobots take on similar tasks but with the primary difference being cobots work “collaboratively” alongside human laborers. Force and speed limitations of cobots reduce the risk of injury around people compared to six-axis robots. This limits the range of tasks cobots can perform compared to non-collaborative six-axis robots, but they excel in their niche. Cobots are typically slower, smaller, and offer less payload capacity. However, collaborative robots can be an excellent choice for applications requiring proximity or collaboration with human operators and a need for simple programming. This often includes simple assembly tasks like small panel assemblies, drilling, and screwing. Cobots are also commonly found in quality assurance applications that work with or near human operators to scan parts for defects. 

SCARA Robots

SCARA robots are small robots that excel in quick, repetitive tasks requiring high accuracy. SCARAs lack the flexibility, payload capacity, and range of a robotic arm but are designed for tasks where these features aren’t needed. This includes tasks like high-speed component assembly common to automotive electronics. SCARA robots wouldn’t be a good fit for tasks requiring complex motion, large reach, or heavy payload capacity. This includes common automotive tasks like welding and painting. SCARA is a cost-efficient choice for the right application, considering they tend to be the least expensive option on this list.

Mobile Robots

Mobile robots—also called automated guided vehicles—take care of internal logistics and material handling applications, such as transporting parts from one factory area to another. They find their way around the factory using different technologies, which makes them perfect for fleet control optimization. Dozens of mobile robots can work together to optimize logistics within the facility. This coordination often resembles complex choreography. It’s important to note that mobile robots don’t feature manipulators. Therefore, they’ll often need to be paired with other robot types or human operators. 

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Automotive Robot Applications

Automotive robots production line

Industrial robots significantly impact the automotive industry, considering the breadth of applications they take on for manufacturers. Dozens of robots make up highly coordinated assembly lines. They are sometimes working with humans and other times working in fully automated end-to-end processes. As a result, the modern automotive manufacturing is defined by automation. 

Robotic Welding

Robotic welding is one of the most common applications in the automotive sector, and one of the first! MIG, TIG, and spot welding are some of the most commonly automated welding applications in automotive manufacturing. Automated welding reduces the danger to human operators and provides a higher level of consistency. This leads to a greater quality of parts in production. 

Suitable welding applications are high-volume and very repeatable, a common occurrence in automotive manufacturing. Six-axis robots are the most common robotic welders due to their reach, flexibility, and payload capacity, though cobots are becoming a more familiar sight for welding applications. 

Robotic Assembly

This broad task refers to any application configuring components to create a final product. Examples include door panel assembly, motor construction, and wheel mounting. Due to their complex construction, assembly tasks are associated with almost every section of the car. Six-axis robots are typically used for larger assembly tasks. Collaborative robots can handle medium payload or lower-speed functions that require human intervention. Additionally, SCARA robots can complete small, simple assembly tasks. Examples include printed circuit board (PCB) assembly and instrument cluster assembly. 

Robotic Painting

Painting applications are a perfect fit for six-axis robots. This task requires excellent range to reach across the body of the vehicle and complex motion to evenly apply paint to curved and angular panels. The six-axis robot is best suited to complete this task efficiently. 

Machine Tending

Traditional industrial machines are responsible for creating hundreds of vehicle components. Tending these machines is a simple task that is commonly automated with robotics. Collaborative robots are often paired with mobile robots to create a constant flow of raw materials into the work cell and finished product out for assembly. 

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How to Choose the Right Project

Automotive robots in a painting application

Deciding which task to automate first can be a daunting task. However, the range of standardized robotic applications in the automotive industry offers many opportunities to increase production rates and quality. When deciding which project to start with, it’s helpful to define the processes, run the numbers, and analyze the expected results of your efforts. 

Define the Process

This may seem obvious, but defining the process is an often-overlooked step when researching possible automation projects. Your efforts here can save you from future headaches and make the rest of the process easier. During this step, you should:

  • Set your goals for automating this process
  • Describe how the process is done today in detail (current state)
  • Define the ideal process using automation (future state)

Run the Numbers

KPIs and other metrics will help define what a successful project looks like. Understanding where you are today and what automation might bring you in terms of performance can help you make definitive decisions. Considerations should include:

  • Current metrics
    • Production rate
    • Failure rate
    • Number of operators
    • Today’s costs
    • Uptime/downtime metrics
  • Ideal metrics
    • Expected production rate
    • Acceptable failure rate
    • Number of operators
    • New costs
    • Acceptable uptime/downtime
    • Potential savings

Analyze Results

This research will help you define your desired outcomes for a successful automation project. Key performance indicators will vary depending on your goals. The success of an automation project is commonly measured by its ROI, increase in production rates, or overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). 

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