The mobile robot can run 3D printers at the company’s manufacturing center in Redford, Michigan
Ford is taking manufacturing automation to the next level with a new smart robot called Javier.
The mobile robot, developed by German supplier KUKA, is able to operate 3D printers at the auto giant’s manufacturing center in Redford, Michigan without human intervention, a breakthrough for the industry.
The patent-pending technology behind Javier could have a major impact on other automated processes at Ford manufacturing facilities in the future.
According to Ford, there are multiple benefits to using Javier, especially its accuracy, which reduces inefficiencies, and its ability to run continuously without human interaction, which means 3D printers can run overnight even when employees went home, increasing throughput and reducing the cost of custom printed components.
Essentially, Javier’s role is to retrieve a printed car part when the printer indicates it’s ready, then set it aside to wait for it to be retrieved by a human operator later. Ford has used the printer to manufacture low-volume custom automotive parts such as the brake line bracket for the Performance Package-equipped Shelby GT500 Mustang sports car.
But arguably more interesting, and certainly more significant, is how Javier works, in particular his ability to “communicate” with the printer. Ford says Javier does not rely on camera vision to “see”, but instead uses an app interface developed by the automaker that allows different equipment from different vendors to interact with each other, “speak the same language” and send constant feedback to each other.
Although Ford understandably remains silent at this stage regarding the specifics of this – the communication interface is one of many patents pending – the implications are clear: the technology can offer a more “connected” manufacturing process and all benefits that could bring.
“This new process has the ability to change the way we use robotics in our manufacturing facilities,” said Jason Ryska, director of global manufacturing technology development. “Not only does this 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 assembly line.
Although the process itself is self-contained, Ford stresses that human operators still need to upload 3D designs to the printer and maintain the machines, as well as devise new ways to use the technology.