Ford’s Advanced Manufacturing Center has developed an interface that allows machines from different vendors to speak to each other in the same language and operate parts of the production line autonomously.
Automakers have been integrating robotics into their manufacturing processes for decades to reduce costs and increase efficiency. But Ford’s patent-pending system solves a crucial bottleneck in the production line by using robots to run 3D printers overnight without human interaction.
The autonomous system marks the first time that Carbon 3D printers and robots built by KUKA can speak to each other in the same language, opening up unlimited possibilities for collaboration for other machines involved throughout the production process.
So far, the company has helped produce low-volume custom auto parts, such as the brake line bracket for Mustang Shelby GT500 sports cars equipped with the Performance Package.
“This new process has the ability to change the way we use robotics in our manufacturing facilities,” Jason Ryska, director of global manufacturing technology development, said in a statement.
Javier, the name given to supplier KUKA’s wheeled robot, can operate the 3D printer continuously without human intervention, even after employees have gone home for the night. Ford says the robots constantly learn from printer data to help the automaker achieve greater accuracy and lower margins of error.
“At Ford’s Advanced Manufacturing Center, Javier is responsible for operating the 3D printers entirely by himself,” Ford said in a statement. “He’s always on time, very precise in his movements, and he works most of the day – only taking a short break to recharge.”
Usually, equipment from different vendors cannot interact because they use separate communication interfaces. Ford’s system allows equipment from different vendors to communicate with each other, sending commands and feedback in real time.
After the Carbon 3D tells Javier that the printed car component is ready, Javier retrieves it and sets it aside for a human operator to retrieve later.
Ford has filed several patents for the technology that underpins its communication interfaces and precise robot positioning. Although the process is self-contained, human operators must upload the 3D designs to the printer and maintain the machines.