Game Changing Technology for Auto Manufacturers

Game Changing Technology for Auto Manufacturers

The automotive industry continues to evolve rapidly. Consumers want the latest features and styles, and vehicles are becoming more advanced, better connected and ‘smarter’ to address the market requirements. This means regular refreshes to incorporate the latest automotive safety, fuel efficiency, performance, designs and options.

Auto manufacturers need to gain the flexibility and speed required to produce multiple models and variations to meet changing consumer demands. To meet these requirements, automakers are implementing the latest smart automation technologies.

KUKA Systems North America, part of Germany based KUKA AG, is an international supplier of engineering services and flexible automation systems for the Automotive, Aerospace, Energy and Industrial Solutions segments. In the automotive industry, KUKA’s portfolio includes the entire manufacturing automation spectrum for joining and assembling vehicle bodies.

From production facilities with low levels of automation to highly flexible manufacturing systems, from the manufacture of individual subassemblies to the assembly of complete bodyshells and add-on parts, KUKA prides itself on being masters of automated and semi-automated car body production.

The lead engineers at KUKA evaluated the standard automation systems used in auto manufacturing facilities – most of which are 25 years old and haven’t seen major improvements in over 15 years – and saw an opportunity to create a system that would significantly improve the way cars are built. KUKA was looking for an alternative to the industry standard that would be flexible, efficient and cost effective.

Turning the Vision into Reality

KUKA wanted to develop a system that would bring significant change to auto manufacturing and significant benefits over legacy systems. The engineers at KUKA wanted to create a true game changing technology. When turning their vision into reality, KUKA turned to MagneMotion’s QuickStick HT Independent Cart Technology.

When Kevin Laurence, director of KUKA’s PULSE division, discovered MagneMotion’s QuickStick HT Independent Cart Technology he commented, “For the first time, I found a product that we could use as building blocks. All other products we looked at didn’t have the necessary power or were one off designs that were too expensive and not flexible enough.”

These alternative products were not viable options for the automotive industry where projects need to be completed in less than a year. QuickStick HT’s inherent ease of use and flexibility allowed KUKA to simply configure a solution to fit their needs and timeframe.

Less is More

Comprised of a linear motor and separate drive, QuickStick HT uses integrated position sensing to enable independent control of separate carriers on a track. Accelerations, decelerations, velocities and positions are programmable. Instead of moving at a fixed speed, vehicle body sections can quickly advance through robotic workstations as process steps are completed.

As a rule, “less is more” in industrial applications. Fewer system components typically result in a simpler design, better performance and easier maintenance. Compared to conventional roller-bed and trolley systems, first generation KS PULSE systems reduced the number of unique components from 200 to 14. Performance gains were equally impressive.

Fast forward a few years, with advancing bandwidth and communications protocols – the latest release features significant enhancements enabled by improved QuickStick HT capabilities, starting with the network architecture and communication protocol.

The initial offering was hardwired and based on node controllers using RS-422 serial communication. The updated product features Ethernet-compatible node controllers – and takes advantage of the network’s higher bandwidth.

“Hardwired RS-422 communication has its limits, and it is not typically used in our industry,” Laurence said. “Our latest KS PULSE system, built on EtherNet/IP, has more capacity – and uses a protocol that is familiar to system integrators.”

Integrated Safety Reduces Component Count

In addition, while the original QuickStick HT relied on a niche drive, the product now includes Allen-Bradley Kinetix 5700 servo drive technology.

“Using a recognized, standard servo drive makes our product more accessible to integrators across the industry,” Laurence said. “It really helps lower that learning curve.”

The Kinetix 5700 servo also features integrated advanced safety, including Safe Torque-Off functionality. With the Safe Torque-Off function, power that can cause motion is removed from the linear motor – without powering down the entire system. As a result, equipment can be brought to a stop more safely – and restarted more quickly.

“To achieve functional safety in our previous solution, we had to add a wide range of components including safety-rated relays and contactors – plus all associated wiring,” said Laurence. “Thanks to integrated safety, we have reduced overall system complexity and potential points of failure.”

Modernized Power Supplies

KUKA Systems also reaped the benefits of a modernized approach to power supplies and connection systems. Along with the Kinetix 5700 drive, the QuickStick HT update incorporates Kinetix-compatible power supplies.

“In our initial KS PULSE offering, we relied on a range of different transformers to achieve compatibility with global power standards,” Laurence explained. “For each transformer, there was a unique part number and wiring diagram.”

With the new approach to power supplies, KUKA Systems no longer needs transformers to accommodate incoming voltage variations. And instead of multiple parts and wiring diagrams, the company has essentially one standard version.

“And changing cables is much easier, thanks to terminal blocks that are now wired into our panel,” Laurence added. “Since the connectors are on the outside, our customers never have to open the box to change a cable.”

Simply More Modular

The updated software system for the KS PULSE echoes the system’s simplified hardware.

“Our software and new user interface reflects the streamlined approach to hardware – and is designed to ease configuration,” Laurence said.

By taking advantage of advanced technology and decreasing equipment requirements, KUKA Systems has reduced integration complexity at every level.

“We aimed to make the KS PULSE transport system more modular, more “plug and play,” said Laurence. “This latest release does that – and lays the foundation for future enhancements.”

Added Value for Customers

“QuickStick has allowed KUKA to present a revolutionary, complete solution to our customers that improves all measured criteria”, stated Laurence. “It’s twice as fast, has 1/10 the parts, zero external locating devices, uses less power, has greater MTBF yet significantly lowers MTTR all while being more flexible.  These are the main things our customers measure us on, and we hit home runs on every count.”

With the latest upgrades, the QuickStick intelligent conveyance allowed KUKA to give the automotive industry the ground-breaking, turnkey solution they were striving for.

Featuring enhanced communication with EtherNet/IP, simplified safety configuration, streamlined approach to power supply and connection systems and easier configuration with user-friendly software and interface – the KUKA PULSE helps auto manufacturers gain the flexibility and speed required to produce multiple models and variations to meet changing consumer demands.

When asked about his vision for the future, Laurence stated, “I believe the KUKA PULSE, utilizing MagneMotion’s QuickStick technology, will eventually run all automotive body shops.

The benefits PULSE offers over traditional equipment are staggering. In my opinion, there hasn’t been a bigger breakthrough in automotive manufacturing since the acceptance of robots on the manufacturing floor.”

Automation Today

Automation Today Asia Pacific, quarterly magazine published by Rockwell Automation Inc. is designed to deliver the latest industrial automation & information technology trends, case studies & application stories, new products & features.