A changing world demands new ways of thinking about car assembly

2014-04-03 - In a Chinese factory, Ford Motor Company and its partner Changan are on a quest to meet the demands of a new consumer with innovative automation from ABB Robotics.
Around the world the needs of the car buying public are changing. From hybrids and electric cars, to diesels and fuel efficient turbocharged gasoline engines, there has never been a greater understanding that the “one car fits all” mindset doesn’t really apply anymore.

Along with this new array of drivetrains, buyers are showing an increased preference for Internet-connected mobility and high tech features that make driving safer. Combine these demands with an acute consumer awareness of product quality, and a picture begins to emerge of the daunting task carmakers now face.

These new choices are certainly spawning a sense of increased personal mobility and standard of living around the globe—and in China these changes have been particularly evident—but trying to build cars to meet these new demands at a reasonable price and simultaneously respond to rapidly fluctuating market demands¬ has been a challenge for the automotive world, to say the least.

The Changan Ford FlexLean Body-in-white assembly line in Chongqing, China

“The economic downturn has been tough on automakers and has highlighted the need to be more adaptive to the demands of the market,” says Yuan HengXin, Manfacturing Engineering Manager for Changan Ford. “This is especially true when it comes to being able to respond quicker to changes in customer preference, as well as remain competitive in a fierce industry.”

Ford Motor Company, along with its business partners around the world, has been on a multi-year quest to change its global operations to address this rapidly changing industry. The company’s strategies, spearheaded by its CEO Alan Mulally, represent one of the clearest solutions in the automotive arena as to what it takes to remain competitive as a global carmaker in the modern world.

By introducing more than a dozen completely new or entirely revamped car models in the last several years, the company has been aggressively clear in its goals of delivering the highest quality, safest and greenest cars to the market—no matter where those consumers may be located. In China, the Changan-Ford Joint Venture continues to work to provide consumers with the kinds of cars they love, and manufacturing quality is at the core of this promise.

In a word, the solution is automation
“With this increasing prosperity the market will continue to grow, meaning high volume production—which can only be accomplished with full automation,” says Yuan. “In order to remain ahead of the competition, we need to bring new products to the market faster.”

ABB Robotics and Ford Motor Company have had an intimate relationship in creating innovative automation solutions for many years. This collaboration continues in Chongqing, China, where the Changan-Ford joint venture is using flexible production lines to produce some of its newest models—including the very popular Ford Fusion/Mondeo.

As with most things in life, working from a solid foundation ensures a good final product. In the process of building a car that foundation is what’s called body-in-white. Body-in-white refers to the act of assembling raw stamped metal body panels into a welded frame. It is in this stage of assembly that all the geometries are set and stiffness is created. As might be expected, these are the features of the vehicle that greatly affect improved safety, better handling, responsive ride, a quality finish and reduced noise. To consumers, those features are some of the most important buying considerations.

"ABB Robotics is a good partner for us in this regard. It is a company with a global reach and reputation for innovation in the automotive market. They have consistently delivered high quality products that show a clear understanding of the needs of a modern carmaker."

“ABB has responded to the needs of body-in-white customers with a technology principle called ‘FlexLean’,” says Alan Stapelberg, ABB Robotics Body-in-White Product Manager. “This philosophy uses robotics technology to replace traditional custom made machinery with standardized solutions. These products are modular in design and flexible—allowing multiple car models to be produced on the same line and new models to be added easily.”

Flexibility, standardization and integration
The new ABB FlexLean body-in-white line at the Chongqing factory has permitted Changan-Ford to accomplish two fundamental tasks in modernizing their global production techniques.

“By standardizing our production globally and communizing the platforms across factories, we can reuse the investment over several models and produce the same model in different plants around the world,” says Yuan. “At the same time, we are employing flexible production technologies that allow us to build different car models with the same machinery, thus sharing the investment over the models and shortening the lead time to launch new models.”

By standardizing in this way, Changan-Ford can ramp up production of successful models faster by using the capacity of all the production lines in a given region, rather than being restricted by the fixed capacity of a model specific to a given production line. For Changan-Ford, this means higher utilization of their investment and faster response times to fluctuating market demands.

“FlexLean” philosophy in action
The technologies that allow for these modern production principles include the entire suite of ABB FlexLean products; the center stage held by the new GateFramer and supported by the FlexTrack, FlexPLP and Roller Hemming. The body-in-white line at the Chongqing factory also includes robotic laser brazing, welding and cutting cells, an impressive grinding cell and a seam sealing cell.

The GateFramer is one of ABB’s newest products and takes an innovative approach to meeting the dual challenges of flexibility and adaptability. “Framing is the heart of the production line where the geometry of the car is set,” says Stapelberg. “ABB's GateFramer allows for framing of up to six different models on the same line with less than eighteen second changeover time and completely random model production. It also allows for rapid introduction of new models to the line in just a few hours.”

The car skeleton is transported along the production line as it is assembled into a complete car body. Throughout this process, ABB’s FlexTrack ensures smooth and programmable transitions between work stations and offers high reliability. Each station is also equipped with a flexible tooling system, the FlexPLP. These small robots are located underneath the car allowing for cars of different lengths and widths to be held in the station during the assembly. Both products are designed to endure harsh welding environments, and provide precise repeatability—ensuring that car geometry remains constant over time.

The ABB Roller Hemming solution at Changan Ford
ABB’s Roller Hemming and laser cells are also a key part of the innovation and success of this new line. The Roller Hemming system is a standardized metal hemming solution. Unlike conventional methods of table-top-hemming, which are model specific, when a new car part is to be introduced to a Roller Hemming station, the new program can simply be created on a PC and downloaded to the robot controller within minutes—further complementing the philosophy of flexible production.

The laser welding, brazing and cutting cells offer speed and flexibility in critical areas such as roof top joining. In addition the process results in higher quality with more precision than conventional methods, and requires less material at the welding point to achieve the same strength—simultaneously making the car lighter and resulting in the type of finish that customers demand today.

As a whole package, the ABB body-in-white solutions integrate seamlessly together, and their modular design allows incremental implementation as required, resulting in lower up-front costs but allowing for future expansion.

Collaboration results in solutions that exceed expectations
Changan Ford is working with elite global partners like ABB to deploy best-in-class technologies at all of their plants. In Chongqing, the benefits of a flexible production line are clear.

“We can introduce new models within hours, simply by ‘configuring the line’ for production of the next model, while still being able to produce the existing models during the introduction of new models,” says Yuan. “This allows the phase-in of new models, and the phase-out of old models directly driven by the market demand, and not by production capacity, lead time or a need to wait for infrastructure build-up.”

According to Yuan, replacing their conventional custom made machines has also resulted in easier maintenance, more complete documentation and higher spare parts availability. Another main benefit of these standard products is the fact that they are all controlled under the same programming interface and language as the ABB robots. For Changan-Ford this means less training of operators and simpler day-to-day usability.

“The robotic technology is trusted and proven for its precision, reliability and accuracy,” says Yuan. “As a global joint venture, Changan-Ford realizes it needs to develop key partnerships with other global entities to innovate the solutions that will allow us to meet the needs of modern vehicle manufacturing. ABB Robotics is a good partner for us in this regard. It is a company with a global reach and reputation for innovation in the automotive market. They have consistently delivered high quality products that show a clear understanding of the needs of a modern carmaker.”

Whatever the future might hold for the automotive market, it’s clear that Changan-Ford believes the robotic automation solutions from ABB will be able to adapt to what the market demands.


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