September 19, 2013      

In addition to trendsetting automobile design, Volkswagen has set a newer trend when it comes to manufacturing: co-worker robots building engines side-by-side with human workers. Actually, it?s not so much a trend as it is the first sign of a paradigm shift in the auto industry.

Ever since the world?s first industrial robot, the Unimate, debuted in GM?s Temstedt plant in Trenton, NJ in 1961, the traditional role for robots in car plants has always been one of working in isolation or in groups, like the common frame-welding robot pods found in most auto plants today. They were not safe to work alongside humans, so they were set off or caged.

That?s all changing thanks to a partnership between Volkswagen Group and Denmark?s Universal Robots, together with the latter?s German distributor, Faude Automatisierungstechnik.

Volkswagen?s huge 2.8M square meter (3.4M square yard) Salzgitter engine plant in Lower Saxony pushes out 7,000 gas and diesel engines daily, thanks to its 6,000 employees?and now, one robot. The 6-axis UR5, a customized version of Universal Robots’ smaller base robot is at work with its ?collaborative grippers,? inserting delicate glow plugs into cylinder heads. Salzgitter?s 6,000 employees push out 7,000 gas and diesel engines daily.

Universal Robots’ plan is to use the 5 kilo (11 lbs.) lifting capability of the UR5 to ?automate monotonous and laborious processes,? in close quarters with human employees; currently it’s the only ISO/TS 15066-compliant robot arm permitted to work uncaged in an auto plant. Plus, the UR5 tilts the scales near a dainty 40.6 lbs, making it one of the lighter industrial robots out there?and a far cry from the ancient Unimate?s 4,000 lb arm.

Founded in 2005, UR quickly came to the conclusion that the robotics market was unnecessarily dominated by heavy, expensive, and unwieldy robots. They recognized a need for robot technology accessible to small and medium-sized enterprises. By 2009, the first UR5 robots were available on the Danish and German market.

UR’s U.S.-based sales manager, Ed Mullen, says Volkswagen is not alone using the UR5, BMW is also working with one. ?We?re at the really early stages,? he added. ?The collaborative robot is just now finding some traction.?

The addition of the UR5, a two-year pilot project, will relieve two employees of having to adopt a painful, stooped posture to insert the glow plugs into a barely visible cylinder head.

?We would like to prevent long-term burdens on our employees in all areas of our company with an ergonomic workplace layout. By using robots without guards, they can work together hand in hand with the robot,? said Jurgen Hafner, project manager at the Salzgitter plant.

The Volkswagen UR is, thus far, propelling change more than any other robot development in the auto industry. Volkswagen Group provides the youthful robot maker with a hugely important market access point: VW has 100 factories worldwide and is the second largest automaker globally, tallying almost $200B annually.

But this is more than a singular robotics company doing well for itself. It?s a breakthrough in human-robot interaction and integration of a new machine mentality. And almost poetically, it?s happening in the industry where manufacturing robots got its start.

Breaking ?back? into the automotive industry means co-worker robotics has now passed the stringent regulation protocols, as well as the technological and social barriers that formally relegated co-robots to smaller-scale production.

To be fair, most co-worker robot production companies are still geared toward small and medium businesses, and for good reason?smaller, flexible, and most importantly, programmable robots serve most SMBs? agile models.

Universal Robots, however, has broken new ground in an exclusive club formerly reserved for heavyweight industrial robots. It might well herald a paradigm shift in the making.

See also: Universal Robots? UR5 Goes to Work for Volkswagen

RBR50: Universal Robots