Ford’s Advanced Manufacturing Center has developed an interface that allows machines from different suppliers to speak the same language and autonomously control parts of the production line.
Automakers have been incorporating robotics into their manufacturing processes for decades to reduce costs and improve efficiency. But Ford’s patented system solves a major hurdle on the production line by using robots to run 3D printers overnight without human intervention.
The autonomous system marks the first time that a Carbon 3D printer and a robot created by Kuka can speak the same language, opening up endless possibilities for other machines involved in the production process to work together.
So far, the company has assisted in the production of low volume custom automotive parts such as brake line brackets for Mustang Shelby GT500 sports cars equipped with the Performance Package.
“This new process has the potential to change how we use robotics in our manufacturing plants,” said Jason Riska, director of global manufacturing technology development.
Xavier, supplied by a KUKA supplier with a wheeled robot, can continuously operate the 3D printer without human intervention, even after the workers have gone home at night. Ford says the robots are constantly learning from printer data to help the automaker achieve greater accuracy and reduce margin of error.
“At the Ford Advanced Manufacturing Center, Xavier was tasked with operating the 3D printer entirely on his own,” Ford said in a statement. “He’s always on time, very precise with his movements, and he trains most of the day – he only takes a short break to recharge.”
Typically, equipment from different vendors cannot communicate with each other because they use different communication interfaces. The Ford system allows equipment from different suppliers to communicate with each other and send orders and feedback in real time.
Once Carbon 3D tells Xavier that the printed car part is ready, Javier collects it and sets it aside for the human operator to retrieve later.
Ford has filed several technology patents related to the communication interface and precise positioning of the robot. Although this process is offline, human operators must upload the 3D design to the printer and maintain the machines.