At Ford’s Advanced Manufacturing Center, a mobile robot from KUKA operates 3D printers completely alone. Called Javier by additive manufacturing operators at Ford, the robot is an integral part of the company’s development of an industry-unique process for operating Carbon 3D printers with an autonomous mobile robot rather than a stationary unit and stationary.
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, it extends to other aspects of our manufacturing processes – this technology will allow us to simplify equipment and be even more flexible on the Mountain range.
—Jason Ryska, Director, Global Manufacturing Technology Development
Ford has achieved great precision with the robot, using its feedback to significantly reduce the margins of error. In addition to 3D printers, the method can be applied to a wide range of robots already working in the company to increase efficiency and reduce costs.
Ford has filed several patents related to the overall process, communication interfaces and precise positioning of the robot, which does not require the use of a camera vision system to “see”.
Typically, different equipment from different vendors cannot interact because they are not running the same communication interface. Ford has developed an application interface program that allows different 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, and then the robot informs the printer that the robot has arrived and is ready to be picked up. This innovative communication is what makes the whole process possible.
The robot allows Ford to run its 3D printers overnight, even after employees have left for the day. Not only does this increase throughput, but it also reduces the cost of custom printed products. Ford has used the printer to manufacture low-volume custom parts, such as a brake line bracket for the Performance Package-equipped Mustang Shelby GT500.
Although the process itself is self-contained, Ford operators are responsible for uploading 3D designs to the printer and maintaining the machines, as well as designing new ways to use the technology.