Chrysler's Ewasyshyn: New robots are less expensive, more powerful and more flexible.
Mercedes began building vehicles eight years ago at a then-ultra-modern factory in Vance, Alabama. There, 68 robots passed M class SUV bodies from station to station and 12 worked elsewhere in the plant. But after a $600 million (E453 million) overhaul, there will be 800 robots -- 600 in the body shop.
The cost of factory automation is falling much like home computers prices in the 1990s. Robots can lift more, work faster and do more complex tasks than in the past.
The Vance project is an example of how automakers are investing in automation. Comau PICO, the US subsidiary of Italy's Comau, designed and built Mercedes' 500,000-square-foot body shop.
While the price has dropped, robots are far from cheap. Robots that previously sold for $40,000 are selling for $20,000, says Ray Kauffmann, vice president of sales and marketing for Comau PICO. And adding robots does not necessarily mean fewer workers. Mercedes is doubling its work force to 4,000 to handle expected greater production.
More automation forces auto plants to bolster employee training for operations and maintenance. Greater technical skills cost time and money to acquire and maintain.
Volume spurs Mercedes
The Vance plant is the largest turnkey project undertaken solely by Comau PICO, Kauffmann says. Neither he nor Mercedes would break down the cost.
Bill Taylor, CEO of Daimler-Chrysler subsidiary Mercedes-Benz US International, says the critical issue was Mercedes' planned US volumes. Mercedes built the original factory to make 70,000 M-class SUVs annually. Now it will build two models and about 160,000 units a year.
But the new robots will give Taylor more control over vehicle quality and monitoring. In the past, the
M class scored poorly in J.D. Power and Associates quality studies.
"We were a very manual plant before," Taylor says. "But now, we are really taking advantage of the technology that's available."
US auto plants use 70,000 robots compared with 59,000 just four years ago, says the Robotic Industries Association of Ann Arbor, Michigan.
But it is not numbers alone. It's better robots, says Frank Ewasyshyn, Chrysler group executive vice president of manufacturing. Rather than custom building automation equipment, carmakers can buy off-the-shelf systems that are more flexible, less expensive and stronger.
New robots can lift up to 500kg.
"The robotics industry has gone through a tremendous change," he says. "It is roughly less than half the cost. It is completely programmable. I can do whatever I want with it. It is a standard product. I no longer have each piece customized."
That creates much more flexibility in manufacturing, Ewasyshyn said.
Others join the parade
Nissan launched a US engine line in Decherd, Tennessee, in 2003 that moves various-sized engines through machining with less human contact.
Robotics let Pirelli North America begin making tires in the US in low volume, a task too costly with traditional labor-intensive processes.
The Robotic Industries Associa-tion says North American robotic equipment unit sales rose 19 percent in the first nine months of 2004, or
13 percent on a dollar basis. Manufacturers, including automakers and suppliers, bought 12,367 robots during the period.
For automakers, flexibility is king.
Due to hardware and software advances made the past three years, robots can stop and start without losing their place in an automated production run. So a carmaker can interrupt the day's run, conduct other activity and simply resume.
Most jobs that robots perform are mundane: They weld, pick up parts and they turn and hold pieces while other robots do something else.
"The more agile the robot is, the faster it can get parts in and out of a spot on the line," says Kauffmann. "The faster it can make welds, the more work the plant can do with the same number of robots. Fewer robots mean a less expensive factory, and less cost in the finished product."