The three articles in this special section provide a glimpse at how European companies are assembling their products.

In 2003 the turnover of the robotics and automation business in Germany grew 7 percent, reaching 6.5 billion Euros. Despite stagnation of the German economy in 2003, the turnover of this sector of industry has tripled since 1994 and significant growth is expected to continue.

This favorable development took place despite the ups and downs of German economy because the automotive industry and its suppliers, the major buyers of robotics, assembly and handling technology, and machine vision, have not cut back investments in the last decade. For them, success in international markets depends on intelligent production, which is achieved with robotics and automation. The turnover of this sector of industry in Europe is about 17 billion euros. This means that 38 percent of the European turnover is generated in Germany.

Assembly and Handling Technology

The turnover of assembly and handling technology in Germany also grew 7 percent in 2003, reaching 3.9 billion euros. The European Factory Automation Committee (EFAC), which is the European sector committee for assembly and handling technology, estimates the turnover in Europe to be close to 10 billion euros so, again, the German share in European turnover is close to 40 percent.

Volatile markets call for flexible and versatile assembly systems. Ever faster model updates, more variants and smaller lot sizes place exacting demands on assembly lines that have to adapt to new models in record time. This is only possible with modular design that allows quick reconfiguration by replacing standard modules with new ones. In this approach, all mechanical, electrical and information technology systems are standardized. Additional modules can be integrated to provide new functions. The software applied is equally versatile, consisting of reusable modules that can be combined at will for every new task.

Rather than building a special-purpose assembly system for every product, a universal platform is used that will be reused over and over again for the assembly of many different product generations. This approach cuts costs substantially in typical medium-volume production. In situations where high-volume production prevails, however, a custom-built system may be the right choice.

Machine vision has been the star performer with regard to the increase of turnover within robotics and automation. Double-digit growth during the last decade has boosted turnover to 830 million euros in Germany in 2003, and this growth rate shows no sign of faltering. According to estimates, only 15 to 20 percent of all possible applications have been tapped into so far. The world market is estimated at about 7 billion euros in 2003, roughly evenly distributed among North America, Asia and Europe.

Machine vision systems contribute to superior manufacturing because they are the eyes of the machine. When the limits of human visual perception are surpassed, cameras come in for monitoring production processes. The digital information supplied by a camera is interpreted by software that filters out the relevant content and evaluates the information. Thus, machine vision systems autonomously inspect welds on steel wheels, find stains on sheet metal, read codes on pharmaceutical products, check safety-critical automotive parts or printed patterns on textiles, and measure dimensions of workpieces.

Machine vision pays! Defective products never continue on to subsequent manufacturing stages and therefore incur no further expenses. Superior products that command higher prices are virtually guaranteed by 100 percent quality checks. Vision systems that monitor the critical areas of complex manufacturing lines reduce downtime. And self-learning systems recognise recurrent defects that can then be systematically rectified, resulting in increased system productivity and availability.

Robots have changed the manufacturing world significantly and will continue to do so in the future. Today's robots have become the universal nucleus of automation technology. Vision systems and sensors allow robots to react autonomously to changes in the environment. Their integration into the communication network of the digital factory, intuitive programming methods and remote diagnostics have vastly increased the functionality and performance of robot systems.

Consequently, robots conquer new fields of application beyond the automotive industry, for example in the food and packaging industry, cold-storage depots, logistics or the plastics and rubber industry. Soon robots and humans will interact more closely than today and share common work spaces. Here the robot may act as a helping hand to the worker.

In 2003 the turnover of robot systems grew by 4 percent to 1.8 billion euros in Germany. According to preliminary statistics, in 2003 more than 13,000 robots were installed in Germany. This new record figure will strengthen the position of Germany as the No. 1 user of robots in Europe and No. 2 worldwide.

Traditionally, the automotive industry has been the pace setter in robot technology for years and still accounts for almost 60 percent of the current installation numbers. But significant growth areas in robot automation have emerged besides automotive and electronic goods manufacturing.

Food, consumer goods and pharmaceutical industries benefit from using robots for cost-effective and flexible production. Applications include general handling, palletizing, order picking, sorting and transportation. Mail order services, airport baggage handling and postal services increasingly call for robot systems, which enable flexible and reliable automation of logistics.

Consumer goods are produced in large quantities and are subjected, due to their increasing association to life style and fashion, to an uncertain market response. Hence, robot applications will in the future increasingly have to compensate for uncertain production volume and uncertain product lifetime.

The growth of mass customization, manufacturing customer-specific products on demand but at mass production prices, will increasingly require manufacturing processes that favor the flexibility inherent in robotic automation.

Outlook for Robotics and Automation

The outlook for 2004 is positive, with companies moving forward with large investments in capital equipment that were postponed in 2002 and 2003. Consequently, the economy in Europe, and especially in Germany, will show a slight upswing in 2004. Several major market drivers will trigger sales of robotics and automation equipment.

Miniaturization. Many of the products we use today, like smart bank cards, cellular phones and GPS car navigation systems, have been made possible by advances in miniaturization technologies that pack more performance into ever smaller packages. Here, automation technology has become an indispensable tool for cost-effective production.

Safety and reliability. Many new products are developed to improve human safety, an area that leaves no room for mistakes. Systems like antilock brakes or electronic stability control in cars must function with absolute reliability. Automation technology provides the means to achieve this zero-defect quality level.

Flexibility. Dynamically changing markets need flexible manufacturing processes. The market for mobile phones, for example, shows that speed and adaptability are essential. The proliferation of new models and new features presents a major challenge to the factory floor. Today's flexible production systems reduce time to market and give the manufacturer a competitive edge.

Quality. A brand name is an unwritten contract between manufacturer and customer that guarantees a certain level of quality, and this concept applies to commodities like paper and sheet metal as well as high-tech products. Automation technology will boost the quality of products and enable the manufacturer to command better prices on the world markets.

Human-machine interaction. No matter how high the degree of automation, it is people who keep the wheels turning. As production processes become increasingly complex, easy operation is all the more important. Operating, diagnosing, programming and monitoring automated systems have been vastly simplified. Intuitive programming and visualization help reduce training costs and raise the efficiency of automated production technology.

Open systems. Standard technologies developed and mass produced for the office world are increasingly conquering the factory floors. High-speed Ethernet is establishing itself as an open communication standard used for connecting manufacturing systems cost-effectively. The use of standard Internet technologies creates new services such as remote diagnostics. Regardless of geographical distance, the supplier of automation technology can monitor the production process via the Internet thus reducing downtime, maintenance and repair costs.

Experience Innovation and Solutions

AUTOMATICA 2004, an entirely new trade show for robotics, product assembly, handling, machine vision and associated technologies will debut on June 15-18, 2004, in Munich, Germany. Robotics, assembly and handling technology, and machine vision are the key factors for competitive manufacturing and for the success of new products and markets around the world.

Competitiveness comes much easier to companies that are able to supply as well as to apply these technologies well. The turnover of the robotics and automation sector of industry in Europe is about 17 billion euros. This means that 38 percent of the European turnover is generated in Germany. Thus Munich, the hub of Europe's biggest market for robotics and automation products, is an ideal venue for AUTOMATICA.

VDMA Robotics + Automation expects growth in turnover in 2004. The producers of machine vision estimate an increase of turnover of 10 percent to 915 million euros in their sector of industry. This positive development not only stems from the technical possibilities it brings. The main driving factor is the cost-effectiveness of vision systems. Investments must be profitable. We have learned from experience that investment in machine vision applications generally pays off after 6 to 18 months, after which the user saves money every day.

AUTOMATICA will focus European trade show activities in one place and at one time, helping to further long-term growth of the entire industry and making a valuable ongoing contribution to the dynamic development of the associated global markets. Because Germany is the biggest market in Europe for assembly and handling technology, AUTOMATICA belongs to the group of trade fairs sponsored by the European Factory Automation Committee (EFAC), which is the European sector committee for assembly and handling technology.

All major European producers of robotics, assembly and handling technology, and machine vision will participate in AUTOMATICA, which has a strong international focus. About 400 exhibitors have already contracted for some 20,000 net square meters of floor space, and 20 percent of those exhibitors are international. It is expected that 40 percent of the visitors to AUTOMATICA will come from abroad.

For information about exhibiting or attending please contact:

Ms. Randi West

Senior Project Director

Munich Trade Fairs North America Corp.

120 S. Riverside Plaza, Suite 1460

Chicago, IL 60606

Phone 312-377-2659

Fax 312-377-2660


New Car Seat Gets New Transfer System

When car manufacturers build new cars, they usually build new production lines. And their suppliers often do the same. To meet increasing expectations, automotive supplier Faurecia (Stadthagen, Germany) installed the TS 4plus transfer system from Bosch Rexroth AG (Stuttgart, Germany) to assemble a new line of car seats.

Germany has almost 39 million registered cars. However, most drivers probably do not know where their car seats came from. However, it is highly likely they are manufactured by Faurecia.

Faurecia has more than 20 "just-in-time" plants. The Unna, Germany, facility produces seats-anything from a stamped part to a complete seat, depending on the order. Orders are placed on a car-model basis, and Faurecia builds all the various seats required for that model.

When it received an order to manufacture a seat for a new car model, Faurecia decided to install a new assembly line. It entrusted equipment selection and line layout to its Frames Manufacturing Engineering North East Europe (FME) division in Stadthagen. The FME engineers were already familiar with Bosch Rexroth's TS 2plus transfer system, and based on good experience, they decided to add a TS 4plus transfer system.

"These transfer systems are very good. They can be set up quickly, because all components for the modular transfer system are coordinated with each other," says Thomas Stoltze, manager of tools and system construction at FME. "The product we had to make, the forces to be absorbed and the required service life were key reasons for selecting the TS 4plus."

Eight different backrests are produced on the line, which was completed in 2001. The line consists of two separate rectangular conveyors for preassembly and final assembly, including testing. Robots handle many of the assembly processes, such as parts transfer and adhesive dispensing.

The transfer system consists of an accumulation roller chain, workpiece pallets, positioning and lift transverse units, and a transport control. With a repeatable accuracy of 0.1 millimeter, the PE4 positioning units ensure that the pallets stop exactly at the prescribed point. The system was built entirely from standard components of the TS 4plus modular system. However, the new line does have one special feature. The pallets are tilted at a 45-degree angle on the corner conveyor and transported through the insertion stations at this angle.

The 45-degree inclination was previously tested by the simulation group at FME using computer-aided design software. Pilot production showed that this design helped workers when inserting heavy components into the pallets. Because workers do not have to bend forward, better cycle times can be achieved.

Each seat consists of two main components, which are fixed to the pallet. Together, the components and pallet weigh about 80 kilograms. This loading weight was one of the reasons that Faurecia decided in favor of the TS 4plus. The maximum permissible load of 250 kilograms allows the conveyors to also be used for assembling other products.

The question of possible use later on is not minor. Products, such as car seats, generally have a life cycle of about 6 years. So changeover and rebuilding options played a significant role in choosing the Bosch conveyors. "In addition, we were able to set up the system rapidly, thanks to the modular concept, and start production in a short time," says Stoltze. He also values the flexibility of the aluminum construction. "We've used a lot of steel up to now in our plants for such transfer systems. In comparison, the aluminum construction is considerably more flexible."

Because of the positive experience with the TS 2plus and TS 4plus, Faurecia will continue to use Bosch conveyors in the future.

Robots Aid Gear Shafts Under Fire

A robot-based production cell surface-finishes gear shafts at OPEL Powertrain GmbH.

With a new robot-based production cell in place for surface-finishing gear shafts, OPEL Powertrain GmbH in Ruesselsheim, Germany, has started production on six-speed F40 gearboxes. The new plant is designed for a capacity of 230,000 gear units per year. The F40 gearbox will be used in different models of General Motors and Fiat automobiles. The robots were supplied by Reis Robotics (Obernburg, Germany). The articulated robotic arms handle gear shafts for various gear types. Production safety, ergonomics, quality, cost reduction and higher production variety were considered during the planning phase.

OPEL Powertrain, a subsidiary of General Motors and Fiat Powertrain Joint Venture, invested 130 million Euros in the new gear plant in Ruesselsheim. To aid production planning, the installation was simulated with 3D plant and design layouts. Simulation software quickened the installation of the new production equipment and reduced development costs.

The gear shafts are tempered in a furnace and shot peened to improve their mechanical characteristics. Shot peening is a method of cold working metal parts by exposing them to a high-velocity stream of metal balls. The purpose of shot peening is to increase fatigue strength and relieve tensile stresses that contribute to stress cracking.

Because only the toothed portion of the gear shaft can be exposed to the shot stream, a protective socket and an expanding mandrel are pushed over the ends of the shaft prior to blasting. After blasting, the socket and mandrel are removed and placed in magazines, while the gear shafts are returned to their fixtures.

The process of loading and unloading the shafts in the fixtures, and installing and removing the sockets and mandrels, used to be done manually. Today, the process is handled entirely by three RV60 six-axis robots from Reis.

After the shafts exit the furnace, a robot removes a shaft from the fixture and places it in a joining station. It then removes a socket from a magazine and pulls it over the end of the shaft with an accuracy of ±0.3 millimeter. A second robot places a mandrel over the shaft. It then loads the protected shafts, in pairs, into the shot peening machine.

After shot peening, the robot unloads the shafts, deposits them back at the joining station, and the process goes in reverse. The third robot removes the mandrel and socket and returns them to their magazines. It then reloads the processed shafts into their original fixture. When the fixture is full, it's released to the next station.

A major challenge that had to be overcome involved the fixtures. The fixtures carrying the shafts would grow each time they passed through the tempering furnace. Because of the heat and case-hardening, the size of the fixtures would increase slightly, and their shape would become distorted. For automation to work, parts must be positioned accurately. Even if there are only slight variations in position, the robot may be unable to reliably "find" and pick up the shafts.

To solve the problem, one of the robots was equipped with a sensor to measure each fixture after it comes out of the furnace. Based on the measurements, the robot's controller calculates the true position of the shafts in the fixture before they are removed for shot peening, and again, after shot peening, when the fixtures have cooled.

Automating the shot peening process cleared the way for continuous production flow. Automation also ensured higher efficiency of the assembly system. The system can now process three different shaft types and six variants. If necessary, the system can even process a lot size of one.