Flexibility and modularity are key aspects of assembly automation on display at Automatica 2010.

Important trends do not change from one day to the next. For example, it has long been observed that, in field of assembly and handling technology, manufacturers want modular systems that provide an optimum balance between flexibility and profitability. Progress is achieved through intensive development year after year.

The fruits of that development can be seen at the leading international trade fair for automation and mechatronics, Automatica 2010, which will take place June 8-11 at the New Munich Trade Fair Centre in Germany.

Flexible assembly and test systems are indispensable when manufacturers must react rapidly to demand fluctuations, model variants and production relocations. When assembly systems must be up and running quickly, the benefits of flexible systems become obvious. “In the current economic situation, [manufacturers are] increasingly refitting existing systems instead of investing in new acquisitions,” says Franz Plasswich, manager of the Automotive Div. at Teamtechnik GmbH of Freiberg, Germany, an Automatica exhibitor. “This can be achieved relatively easily and inexpensively with modular assembly systems.”

Flexibility has many faces. “The flexibility of feed technology is often decisive for the overall flexibility of a system,” says Jean-François Bauer, head of marketing and business development at Mikron Assembly Technology in Boudry, Switzerland, another Automatica exhibitor. “Assembly speed also plays a role with respect to flexibility. It makes a big difference whether 20 or 60 cycles per minute are required. In addition, there is the complexity of the assembly process. These factors set limits to the achievable flexibility.”

Flexible assembly systems provide numerous benefits. For example, they enable manufacturers to make incremental investments in technology. They can rely on a minimal system configuration at the start of production. As demand and model variants increase, the system can be expanded to adapt to the new production requirements.

Flexibility and modularity also pay off when developing assembly lines. To shorten time to market, many companies begin working on assembly systems for a new product while that product is still in development. As a result, system integrators are often forced to start with planning sketches of the product or the assembly process. Many variables are unsettled when a bid is submitted. When product and process changes inevitably arrive, extra stations must be added or the assembly sequence must be changed. This can be done more easily with a modular system than a completely linked system.

Finally, modules that have been standardized need not be developed anew for each system. Tried and tested, standardized modules increase process reliability and maximize system availability.

Although flexibility is always a goal, some assembly tasks still require special solutions from design engineers. “Many of our member companies still consider themselves as special-purpose mechanical engineers,” says Daniela Dietz, director of assembly and handling technology at VDMA Robotics and Automation, the German machine tool builders association and one of the organizers of Automatica.

While standard modules exclude many special requests, manufacturers can take their processes to the limit with the help of special machine builders.

A Practical Example

Teamtechnik recently built a system for assembling and testing electronic components that illustrates the benefits of modularity. Initially, three variants were produced on the system-one for the automotive market and two for the general industrial market. A host computer was installed at the start to coordinate the logistics for the three variants. In a short time, the system was running at full capacity in multiple shifts.

Then the market changed. Demand for the automotive product decreased. Not wanting to waste the extra capacity, the manufacturer decided to assemble additional products for the general industrial market on the system. The variants were added to the host computer, and new fixtures and tooling were built. Production volume increased, and the system was expanded.

Today, more than 14 basic types with at least 10 subvariants are assembled on the system. “The flexibility to react to changing market requirements with expansions and new process sequences was only possible from an economic point of view with a modular system,” says Plasswich.

But, he admits, not every assembly requires high flexibility. “It would be counterproductive to insist on a modular system for applications that can be handled more economically using conventional designs,” says Plasswich. “As a result, we also still offer conventional systems to have the right solution in our range of products for every application.”

Bauer agrees. “All aspects have to be considered in establishing the ideal relation between flexibility and productivity. After all, the users need above all a solution that makes them competitive,” he says.

Find it at Automatica

Held every two years, Automatica brings together all areas of robotics and automation under one roof. The 2008 show was attended by 31,856 visitors from 101 countries. Some 868 exhibitors from 41 countries displayed their wares across 32,000 square meters of exhibition space.

At Automatica, engineers will find the greatest concentration of suppliers of turnkey assembly systems in Europe. Assembly system suppliers from Germany, Switzerland and outside Europe will present their products.

Module specialists and special machine builders will exhibit together at the trade fair. “Assembly and handling technology is the part of automation where everything comes together,” says Dietz.

For more information about Automatica, visit www.automatica-munich.com or contact Anika Niebuhr at 646-437-1014 or aniebuhr@munich-tradefairs.com.