Collaborative robots are in high demand right now, but they often lack the systems to integrate well with existing automation and processes. Now however, Ford reports that she has a KUKA roving robot, affectionately named Javier, to operate her 3D printers. That could be a boon for the Dearborn-based automaker.
Javier walks around and can independently remove constructions and communicate with the company’s 3D printers. The automaker has developed a system that allows Javier to “talk” to equipment from several different vendors, which will help it further its automation efforts. In one example, Ford’s Carbon printers use an API to tell the KUKA bot when to retrieve parts from the printer. If the company’s claims are true, the KUKA bot could also be easily trained to work with the Fortus and other Stratasys systems seen in the image below (J850 and F270, perhaps?).
“This new process has the potential to change the way we use robotics in our manufacturing facilities. Not only does it allow Ford to expand its 3D printing operations, but it extends to other aspects of our manufacturing processes, this technology will allow us to simplify equipment and be even more flexible on the assembly line,” said Jason Ryska, director of Global Manufacturing Technology. Development at Ford.
The company also specifies that the robot does not require artificial vision and that it has filed patents around the collaborative communication aspect of this development. The company believes that using Javier would reduce parts costs and increase throughput. So far, Ford has been using Carbon 3D printers and the KUKKA bot to produce niche or custom parts, such as the brake line bracket for his Performance Package-equipped Mustang Shelby GT500.
It is a fantastic development from KUKA and Ford. If it could be easy to reprogram this robot and make it communicate with other automation equipment, then companies could have a very versatile automation solution. New production equipment such as 3D printers could then be easily adopted in current factories and lines. They wouldn’t have to adapt an entire line to work with serial or batch 3D printers, but instead could add them to existing workflows. If the company then had to switch to a new printer model or a model from another vendor, then it would be less costly for them to do so.
It could also help Ford stay ahead of the innovation curve and always roll out the latest equipment. Rather than having to revamp entire lines and factories, this will lead to an extremely inexpensive and potentially fast way to adopt new technologies. If the system works as advertised, then it could be used for more transport tasks, such as picking up parts for cleaning, flashing, or finishing as well.
With approximately 30% of 3D printing a part currently found in labor, this could represent significant savings for many companies. Reduced use of machine vision could also reduce the costs of machine vision chips and components, making KUKA and Ford less reliant on machine vision FPGAs, LIDAR and other in-demand technologies for factory automation. .
This seems to be, especially for KUKA, a prescient decision now that we all understand how painful it can be to be at the end of the waiting list for in-demand chipsets. This is particularly timely for the robotics company, since the fact that the German pillar belongs to the The Chinese company Midea raises doubts about how its robots can be safely used in defense, aerospace and beyond. The lack of machine vision may appease some companies, and a versatile bot like this could be used in many factories where prying eyes are less of a concern.
Until now, in 3D printing, vendors have sought to create fully automated lines directly from machine to machine. This is capital intensive and requires a lot of work. Additionally, a delay anywhere in the line can delay the entire manufacturing operation. Here, robots or other equipment transport batches of a build from a printer to a depowering station to a finishing station and then on to production. In this case, equipment such as AM-FLOW then sorts the parts as entire builds go through the process. Batch processing is an attractive prospect. Now, however, Ford and KUKA have shown us that a system that is perhaps more complicated and expensive per action but far more versatile overall is possible. This will be an interesting space for us to watch which could have a significant impact on our market.
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