COLOGNE, Germany—For the first time, Ford Motor Co. has deployed a team of collaborative robots, or cobots, to work alongside employees at its assembly plant here to ensure that every Ford Fiesta has a perfect finish.

The six cobots complete a choreographed sequence to sand the entire body surface in just 35 seconds. The initiative does not replace employees, but allows them to use their time on more complex tasks and avoid suffering the strains associated with performing repetitive tasks.

“The cobots can feel when more force needs to be applied, just like we can, and they can more easily get to hard-to-reach places, like the center of the roof,” says Dennis Kuhn, senior manufacturing engineer for the paint shop at Ford of Europe.

Each cobot is a UR10, the world’s best-selling cobot, from Universal Robots. In the Ford paint shop, the cobots are equipped with a 3D-printed soft flexible layer between the robotic arm and the sandpaper that enables the cobot to work with the same precision and dexterity as a human hand.

During the production process, each Fiesta is submerged in a special bath to provide more than 10 years of corrosion protection. Afterwards, small flecks can remain on the surface, unseen to the naked eye, but that can be felt by hand and could impact the final finish of the vehicle. The six cobots step in to smooth away these inconsistencies and vacuum any dust left behind. Final checks are completed by two employees before the vehicle body moves along the line for the primer application.

The UR10 has been used for several years in the audio equipment industry to polish high‑performance loudspeakers and subwoofers. For loudspeakers and audio equipment production with mostly flat surfaces, only one cobot is required. Introducing the technology on a moving production line for a multi-contoured vehicle required a new approach.

“It took several weeks to install the cobots and program them to move in harmony to smooth the unique contours of a Ford Fiesta, a task made all the more difficult because the vehicle never stops moving,” says Detlev Dahl, CEO of Dahl Automation, the systems integrator that designed and built the project. “But that’s where the adaptability of the cobots and our vast experience as one of the first Universal Robots certified system integrators came to the fore. With the moves mastered, they never miss a beat.”

Ford is reviewing further rollout of the cobots at the company’s facilities in Valencia, Spain, and Craiova, Romania. The company has already introduced other cobots that have been programmed to assist production line workers with complex assembly procedures, such as fitting shock absorbers to cars and spark plugs to engines. The automaker has also introduced a self-driving robot, called “Survival,” to deliver parts to assembly lines.