Better, Faster, and Cheaper – These Robots Are Invading Car Manufacturing Plants

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Robots used cameras and lasers to assemble the 2013 Ford Escape with unprecedented precision.

Does anyone doubt that it really is just a matter of time before human assembly line workers are a thing of the past? And automakers are doing their best to gain a competitive edge by roboticizing their manufacturing plants. Here’s a glimpse of some of the robots that have recently stepped onto the assembly line floor.

When Ford’s 2013 Escape hits the road later this year, it’s a safe bet that no one will notice just how precisely it’s parts are put together, compared to past models. The improved assemblage is due to a group of robots which use lasers and cameras to fit windshields, door panels, and fenders together more closely. When installing a windshield, a robot deposits adhesive evenly around the glass border, then uses a suction cup to move and secure it. Gaps between pieces are smaller, which makes for a more aerodynamic and quieter ride due to decreased wind noise.

The 2013 Escape is their first US-manufactured car to benefit from the seeing-eye robots. Ford had already been using the robots at their manufacturing plants in Europe but only recently installed 700 of them at their Louisville, Kentucky plant. The robots raise the quality of assembly to “custom-like build,” Ford engineer Thomas Burns said in a press release. The robots also give a boost to the all important bottom line by saving energy and reducing the physical strain exerted by their human co-workers.

And if you have laser-vision robots, you might as well use them to inspect their own handiwork. Check out Ford’s incredible robots in the following video. You can almost sense an awareness behind their scrutinizing inspection.

Ford cars will also have nicer coats to show off their improved assembly. The company is bringing 88 new robots to apply paint and sealer to vehicles. By getting rid of all the humans in paint zones the plant saves money by minimizing the need for climate and air current control.

And Ford isn’t completely automation-centric with their robotic upgrades. Last year the company bought robotic arms that turn their assembly workers into ergonomic cyborgs. Made by Equipois Inc., the X-Ar arms are wearable exoskeletons that bear the weight of the workers’ arms as they repeatedly grab small objects and assemble them. The X-Ars not only reduce fatigue and risk of ergonomic injury, but they increase manual dexterity and, ultimately, productivity.

GM/NASA's Robo-Glove

GM is doing their part to keep up with their competitors by adopting their own robotic appendage. With the help of NASA, the carmaker developed a robotic glove that, like the X-Ar, reduces the stress of repetitive motions on the assembly line. The so-called Human Grasp Assist Device, or Robo-Glove, is still a prototype. The arm comes with sensors, actuators, and simulated nerves, muscles and tendons that give its wearers an additional 10 pounds of bionic grip force while using tools. Robo-Glove is a spinoff of NASA’s humanoid robot, Robonaut 2, that is a permanent member of the International Space Station crew lending a helping hand with dangerous or mundane tasks.

Always at the forefront of increased efficiency through technology, China opened an automotive plant last August in Tianjin that is perhaps the most advanced in the world. The plant, belonging to Chinese automaker Great Wall Motors, has 30 workstations occupied by 27 robots that perform more than 4,000 high-precision welding operations. The robots are so fast they can complete the welding of an entire Haval SUV in just 86 seconds.

The Great Wall Motors Robotic Assembly Line

On the assembly line, more than many other places, time is money.

The master welders are actually a team of two types of robot, the IRB 6640 and IRB 7600, made by Swedish-Swiss robotics giant ABB Robotics. The IRB 7600 acts as the 6640’s assistant, holding panels and other equipment in place while IRB 6640 welds the parts together. The IRB 6640 is packing servo-driven welding guns which are 25 percent faster than traditional, pneumatic welding guns. What’s more, the robots are flexible enough to weld different car models.

Of course, automanufacturing plants aren’t the only ones being taken over by robots. Right now there are over 190,000 ABB robots in automotive factories worldwide, and last year ABB unveiled FRIDA, the two-armed, headless concept robot that’s meant to do what human assembly line workers can to, but do it better. FRIDA’s small size and 7 degrees-of-freedom arms makes for easy installation and flexibility to do whatever a particular manufacturing plant needs it to do.

Up 30 percent from 2010, robot sales exceeded all expectations last year, according to the International Federation of Robotics. Increased demand from places like China, where manufacturing is expanding, and lowered costs make it easier and more sensible for companies to replace their human workers with robotic ones. Maybe we should stop worrying about the robot apocalypse and start worrying about the human apocalypse that could result from so many factory workers out of the job.

[image credits: Motor Trend, Automobile, and PCMag]

images: Motor Trend, Automobile, and PCMag
video: AutoMotoTV

Peter Murray

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.

Discussion — 12 Responses

  • Joe Nickence May 4, 2012 on 12:31 pm

    I’m sure I’m being overly skeptical about this, but what if one of the inspection bots spots a discrepancy? How does it flag the offense? I would assume that the unit in question would be shuffled out of the line somewhere to be corrected?

  • arpad May 4, 2012 on 4:51 pm

    I imagine, Peter, that you’ve never enjoyed the inelecutable pleasure of one of them high-payin’ factory jobs or you might be less worried about that “human apocolypse” and more worried about what to do with all the wealth that robots will produce.

    By the way, this isn’t the first incipient, human apocolypes that’s turned out, oh, rather different then the rabble-rousers predicted. You might want to aqaint yourself with the etymology of the words “saboture” and “Luddite”.

    • doughtyman arpad March 4, 2013 on 12:16 pm

      Correct arpad. Remember Star Trek? People worked at what they wanted to do, even if it didn’t make much money. Because the basics of life were so cheap due to robots etc, nobody had a job they didn’t like. That released lots of creativity, not to mention fun.

  • Frank Whittemore May 5, 2012 on 3:39 am

    “Maybe we should stop worrying about the robot apocalypse and start worrying about the human apocalypse that could result from so many factory workers out of the job.”

    Yes, we should. For more on that subject, follow this link “How Computers Are Creating a Second Economy Without Workers” –

  • turtles_allthewaydown May 7, 2012 on 9:17 am

    From anybody who watched the 1986 movie “Gung Ho” (about a Detroit manufacturing site that is purchased by the Japanese), the better question might be why hasn’t that happened already? Obviously robots on the factory floor are nothing new. And yet 25 years later, there are still plenty of people employed in manufacturing, so they must be providing some abilities that robots haven’t been able to do.

    Computers are very good at linear, boolean logic activities. They don’t care if it’s repetition or a different sequence every time, as long as they’ve been programmed. But fuzzy logic, recognizing parts sitting piled in a parts bin, and adapting to something not foreseen by the human programmers is very difficult for robots still today. Robots will continue to make inroads, and robot sales up 30% from 2010 is impressive, but how does that compare to 2007-2008, before the car sales plummeted? This is the same old stuff, just a bit better, so I don’t expect a major transformation in the next 5 years.

  • rallen7753 May 9, 2012 on 4:33 pm

    Get a load of this: 250,000 robotics programmers making an average of $100K/yr would be a yearly payroll of $25B. In todays world of $700B bailouts, $25B is not that much. So tell the government we need a Manhattan Project #2 that produces a strong robotic/AI operating system. It is not merely an option to develop this system. It is a necessity!! If any other country (China, Russia, India, all 3 together) develops this before us, we could be sca-rewed!

  • MadMax May 14, 2012 on 1:14 am

    I was just talking about this and here it is again. You guys need to check out “Death by Technology” and OsiXs. They are really sounding the alarm on TU (Technological Unemployment). They say we don’t even need close to full automation in order for technology to capsize the economy. The guy that wrote “The Lights in the Tunnel” is saying the same thing.

  • turtles_allthewaydown May 14, 2012 on 3:32 pm

    Canon announced today that they are looking at complete automation in their factory. They see it as a way of preserving manufacturing in Japan, instead of sending jobs to China or other low-cost country. They also claim no jobs will be lost, as they will retrain workers for other positions. Will be interesting to see how that plays out.

    • Joe Nickence turtles_allthewaydown May 15, 2012 on 12:04 am

      I think that will be a default reaction in years to come. If too many industries ship out to country X, the DPI (?) flushes down the toilet. There HAS to be a leveling off point, even if it means automation on the home shores.

  • Michael Smith October 23, 2012 on 3:43 pm

    Looks good! My uncle just purchased a BMW in Greensboro which looks very prestigious when he’s driving it. I love cars, so keep posting, I’ll be looking.

    • eurobahnmotorsportsnc Michael Smith August 27, 2013 on 2:20 am

      Eurobahn Motorsports BMW-MINI Greensboro

      i just purchased a BMW in Greensboro, NC which in very pristine conditions. I love BMW cars so keep posting, I’ll be looking.

  • innovativeautomation June 30, 2016 on 7:07 am

    Often what is overlooked is the fact that robots are taking on jobs that are not inherently safe or efficient for humans. For the example sited of the 27 robots working together to complete over 4000 welds 86 seconds, it would take a small army of humans to complete this, and to do it in the same are as these robots (if even physically possible) would see human workers showered in sparks and inhaling fumes including toxic metals. Of course the robots are also on time to work, do not miss welds and are more easily monitored for production performance. Forward thinking companies think of the jobs that robots create and how to train the human workers to take them on.