At the end of 2020, the Renault assembly plant in Flins, France, embarked on a new path to focus on the circular economy. The automaker set a goal of buying less, extracting value from existing products, and creating a new industrial model centered on sustainability.
This is how the Flins plant became the Refactory. Today, the factory is known for refurbishing used vehicles and for its role in Renault Group’s new approach to business, generating value throughout the life cycle of its brands’ models. But the vehicles are not the only machines that are enjoying the benefits of transformation. The Refactory now houses a new workshop that retrofits robots.
Dozens of robots are now waiting in line for their metamorphosis at the Refactory. They’re a bit like Benjamin Button, the character in the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald who ages backwards. Technicians at the factory’s retrofit unit are tasked with refurbishing old robots and returning them to production lines. In 2022, the unit revamped 40 robots, many of which were subsequently deployed at Renault’s assembly plant in Douai, France, which, itself, was recently refurbished to produce the new Megane electric SUV.
The robots that retired from Renault’s plants in Sandouville, France, Maubeuge, France, and Douai are sent to the retrofit unit, which is run by Francesetti Nathalie, head of the tooling department at the plant. In the past, each plant retrofitted its own machines. Now, the Refactory revamps them all so the automaker can reap the benefit of a specialist team pooling their expertise in a dedicated workshop. By 2023, the team will double in size and have eight technicians and a scheduler.
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Once the robots are thoroughly cleaned, the roboticists examine them to determine what they need to do to revitalize them. This can mean replacing circuit boards, wire harnesses, motors or wrists. All totaled, it takes about 40 hours to retrofit a robot.
The first robots to arrive at the shop came in 2021 from the Maubeuge plant, when it stopped producing the old model of the Kangoo and started producing a new version on a new body shop. The 18 welding and handling robots were dismantled and sent to Flins for a makeover. Once they were refurbished, they were sent to Douai.
By retrofitting robots, Renault has reduced investments in new projects and repair costs. This operation has also shortened supply chains, which are getting longer and longer for new robots. Indeed, the lead time for a new robot has now increased from 20 weeks to 40 weeks.
There are several steps to go through before retrofitting robots: recording each model’s end-of-production date; determining when facilities will be available; and centralizing each assembly plant’s robot requirements. One technician coordinates the inventorying operation with a correspondent at each Renault plant. Once a robot has been accepted at Flins, the retrofit crew takes over dismantling, transport and transformation of each robot. They clean them, drain them, change parts, update the system, test their accuracy and endurance, and prepare them to ship out.
The workshop has been so successful that orders for used robots are flowing in from throughout the company. Most recently, Renault’s assembly plant in Valladolid, Spain, which produces subcompacts, has placed an order for rehabbed robots for its body shop. The plant has ordered six robots, which will be supplied by the Sandouville plant and retrofitted in Flins.
To deal with all the rehab requests, the robot workshop is itself getting a makeover. It will be enlarged to increase capacity. In the meantime, it has begun preparing a few robots to produce the new electric Renault 5, which will be assembled in Douai.
Ultimately, Renault’s goal is to retrofit more than 170 robots per year to support the company’s shift to producing electric vehicles. The operation will save the automaker some 3 million euros per year.