Automotive industry still leads the way – but where is it going?

Industrial Robot

ISSN: 0143-991x

Article publication date: 1 June 2004




Young, K. (2004), "Automotive industry still leads the way – but where is it going?", Industrial Robot, Vol. 31 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Automotive industry still leads the way – but where is it going?

Automotive industry still leads the way – but where is it going?

Ken Young is Chairman at British Automation and Robotics Association, Warwick University Manufacturing Group, International Manufacturing Centre, University of Warwick, Coventry, CV4 7AL. Tel: 024 7652 2764; Fax: 024 7652 4307; E-mail:

Keywords: Automotive industry, Robots, Sensors

The history of the industrial robot has been linked very closely with the automotive industry. From the first installation right up until the present day, developments in robot technology have been driven by the requirements for automobile production and particularly the requirements of the body shop. Statistics show that spot welding has always been a key application for robots but in recent years, with changes in their accuracy they are increasingly being used for handling parts to static guns rather than handling guns to static parts. The benefit of this is that the robot is combining the welding task with the materials handling and also reducing the number of cables, etc., required to be routed along the robot arm. This harness has for many years been one of the major areas of failure for robot system and its reduction is a major benefit.

For many years now experts have been predicting growth in robot usage in other industry sectors. This growth, while it has undoubtedly occurred, has always been much smaller than hoped for. Industries such as pharmaceuticals, food, aerospace and plastics are undoubtedly using robots, but the volumes in which they take them are far lower than the automotive industry and therefore, little development is driven in their direction.

Given that the automotive industry is driving development the question is what is it that they now require from robots? Already robots are available that can handle a complete car body. They can work to resolutions well inside those required for car building and we are starting to see them using sensors to adjust to variations in individual car bodies.

Many instances exist of laser stripes being used to measure bodies prior to tasks being performed on them. Tasks such as glazing and application of adhesives to narrow flanges or gaps are currently possible and already the possibilities of using these sensors to reduce the amount of tooling required are being discussed seriously. As often happens with sensor technology it is applied to do a job that is not possible in any other way and then once it is there, it is realised that it can be used for other things to give much greater benefit.

Machine vision systems are also being used to identify parts, locate features accurately and also perform in-process gauging and inspection. These technologies which were seen as too complicated, expensive and unreliable, 5 years back are at present cheap, simple, reliable and small enough not to give access issues. Much of this comes from the availability of electronics from video cameras etc., which are currently made in huge numbers and have forced the prices down and the electronic integration levels and hence, reliability up.

Communications have long been an issue and the use of PC based controllers and Ethernet has proved to be a mixed blessing with many advantages, but also some disadvantages in terms of viruses and security issues. These should be resolved in the next few years and have forced control engineers and IT people to talk to each other. The topic of communications networks is far from dead however, with many different opinions as to what the best way forward is. I still favour the use of Ethernet-IP at high level along with a sensor level network such as DeviceNet for low level control. Integration of robot controllers with these is still not as simple as it should be although there are signs of improving, as large automotive systems are demanding it.

Advances are also being made on the process equipment attached to robots. Servo controlled spot weld guns give much better control of the gun closing. This can lead to cycle timesavings and also reduce tip damage. Systems are starting to emerge that also allow monitoring and controlling of gun tip gap and clamp force during the weld. This will lead to far better control of the welding process which will help tremendously with welding difficult materials. The ability to monitor the size of the weld pool using ultrasonics during the weld is also an opening window of opportunity for advanced weld control.

In conclusion, the automotive industry is still crucial to the development of industrial robots and developments are occurring at a rapid pace. This development is currently centred on sensory capabilities and communications, not only for the robots but also for the process equipment used by the robots. Expect to see the way that robots are used continuing to change with a decreased reliance on tooling, and systems becoming much more flexible and adaptable. Eventually, I expect to see an increase in the reuse of robots but while the technology keeps changing at its current pace this is unlikely to happen. When it does, it will allow robots to go into application areas where they have never been economic and it will also force the robot vendors to go into more novel and risky application areas which to date, they have managed to ignore. Who knows, some of the new industries may even allow vendors to make reasonable profit selling robots, something that the automotive industry has managed to avoid for a long time.

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