REDFORD, MI—At Ford’s Advanced Manufacturing Center here, Javier is tasked with operating the 3D printers completely on his own. He is always on time, very precise in his movements, and he works most of the day. He never takes a lunch break or a coffee break—he doesn’t even ask for a paycheck.
Javier is an autonomous mobile robot from KUKA, and he’s integral to the company’s development of an industry-first process to operate 3D printers with little or no human intervention.
“This new process has the ability to change the way we use robotics in our manufacturing facilities,” says Jason Ryska, Ford’s director of global manufacturing technology development. “Not only does it enable Ford to scale its 3D printer operations, it extends into other aspects of our manufacturing processes. This technology will allow us to simplify equipment and be even more flexible on the assembly line.”
Ford has achieved great accuracy with Javier, using his feedback to significantly reduce margins of error. In addition to 3D printers, the method can be applied to a vast array of robots already working at the company to increase efficiency and reduce cost. In its drive to innovate, Ford has filed several patents related to the overall process, communication interfaces and precise positioning of the robot, which does not require use of a machine vision.
Typically, different pieces of equipment from various suppliers are unable to interact because they do not run the same communication interface. Ford developed an application interface program that allows different pieces of equipment to speak the same language and send constant feedback to each other. For example, the Carbon 3D printer tells the KUKA autonomous mobile robot when the printed product will be finished, then the robot lets the printer know it has arrived and is ready to pick up parts. This innovative communication is what makes the whole process possible.
Javier enables Ford to operate its 3D printers all night long, even after employees have left for the day. Not only does this increase throughput, it reduces the cost of custom-printed products. Ford has used the printer to make low-volume, custom parts, such as a brake line bracket for the Mustang Shelby GT500.While the process itself is autonomous, Ford operators are responsible for uploading 3D designs to the printer, maintaining the machinery, and engineering new ways to use the technology.