In less than a week, workers pulled tons of aging equipment and scrap out of Ford’s Chicago Assembly and Stamping Plant as the $1 billion refurbish project started. They tore the body shop down to bare cement and completely rebuilt it – swapping out old gear for top-of-the-line replacements, including a pair of 3D printers for jigs, fixtures, and custom tools.

“This reflects American ingenuity at its finest,” says Ford Automotive President Joe Hinrichs. “In the first five days of the transformation, the team moved the scrap metal equivalent to the weight of the Eiffel Tower from the plant, making room for new equipment. Knowing this plant is set in a city and trucks could not go in and out of the plant at all hours, the team got creative and rented a barge, put all of the scrap metal on it, floated it a mile up the river to a recycling center, then moved in more than 500 truckloads of new technology.”

In automotive body assembly, the core of the body shop is its automated weld space, so the rebuild of the plant that makes Ford Explorer, Police Interceptor, and Lincoln Aviator SUVs meant adding 600 new robots, nearly as many automated machines as the entire industry ordered at the end of 2018.

Recently released statistics from the Association for Advancing Automation (A3) show massive increases in robot sales to automotive original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in the first half of 2019 – an 83% boost from the first half of 2018. However, industry watchers and robot producers say the statistics reflect OEM launch strategies, not increased interest in automation.

Ford Motor Co. installed 600 new robots in its Chicago Assembly and Stamping Plants in early 2019, part of a $1 billion refurbishing of the plant including adding 500 workers to make the Ford Explorer, Explorer Hybrid, Police Interceptor Utility, and Lincoln Aviator SUVs.
Photos by Sam VarnHagen, courtesy of Ford Motor Co.

Vehicle launch cadence

Ford’s Chicago project illustrates the change because it reflects how and when automakers make massive equipment purchases. Designing, engineering, and launching vehicle production can take up to five years. By the time production begins, the build process is locked in – boosts in production come from workers getting more used to systems and from streamlining procedures. Equipment changes become rare, limited almost entirely to replacing broken machines.

So, the biggest equipment buys tend to come with product launches, and the more radical the change to the vehicle, the larger the equipment order. Ford’s plant rebuild supports a completely redesigned 2020 Explorer SUV – one that uses a different structure than its predecessor, requiring changes to the build process.

Neil Dueweke, general manager – automotive, for robotics supplier Fanuc America, says several major OEM product launches in 2019 led to the massive increase in robot orders, and the near doubling of orders this year reflects that trend, following a smaller number of launches in 2018.

“New OEM product introductions typically come with large new robot investment purchases,” Dueweke says, adding that because automakers have announced plans for more new vehicle models, “we see the launch cadence for North America increasing throughout the next three-to-five years.”

Doug Burnside, vice president of sales and marketing at Yaskawa America Inc.’s Motoman Robotics Division, agrees that light launch numbers in 2018 influenced the massive 2019 order surge. However, he’s more pessimistic about near-term orders.

“Late 2019 and early 2020 are expected to be similar to 2018 and 2019 with few new programs,” Burnside says. “The bounce we have seen in the last quarter was due to OEM project launches; we do not expect this to lead to an overall uptick in the very near future.”

A Fanuc M-900iB robot positions body panels at Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant. Fanuc officials say more product launches in the future should lead to increased automotive sales in the next three-to-five years.

Changing designs

Laurie Harbour, president and CEO of manufacturing consulting company Harbour Results Inc., says 2018’s light robotics orders and the increases seen this year show an auto industry preparing for new types of vehicles and new ways to build them.

“We are currently in a light period of launches in automotive as the industry switches architectures to flexible vehicles that can have electric vehicle (EV) variations. But more launches are coming for sure,” Harbour says.

It’s also important to note that automotive OEMs are not the biggest purchasers of industrial robots. That title goes to their supply base. Throughout the past three years, automakers have purchased slightly more than 20% of robots sold in North America. Automotive suppliers have purchased nearly 40%.

And, supplier purchases are steadier. Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 suppliers tend to flex between multiple components instead of locking in a production process as the OEMs do. This means they can benefit from automation and technologically driven productivity boosts throughout a vehicle’s lifespan. So, in recent quarters as OEM robot orders have fluctuated between 615 units in the final quarter of 2018 and 3,240 units at the beginning of 2017, suppliers have been much steadier – a 4,191 order peak in the second quarter of 2017 and 2,504-unit trough at the end of 2018.

Bob Doyle, vice president of A3’s Robotic Industries Association, notes that supplier orders remained strong in 2018, despite low OEM orders – showing that the bulk of automation technology orders are not tied to the up-and-down cycle of automotive product launches.

Association for Advancing Automation (A3) 

Fanuc America Corp. 

Ford Motor Co. 

Harbour Results Inc. 

Yaskawa America Inc.

About the author: Robert Schoenberger is editor of TMV, and can be reached at or 216.393.0271.

Cobot mounting clamps

Mounting clamps for triflex R energy chains on cobots assemble easily and minimize risk between humans and machines.

Plastic clamps attach to the robot arm by a screw connection, and energy chains attach to the clamp by a clip.

Users can use clamps in the human-robot collaboration design to attach the energy chain to the robot arm. The rounded edge design increases workplace safety by reducing injury risk when in contact with the robot.

Combining the flexibility of a hose with the stability of an energy chain, the round triflex R ensures reliable cable guidance in 3D movements.

A ball/socket offers high tensile strength and eases e-chain installation. The interior separation is freely selectable while the circular bend radius stop and the high twistability of the e-chain prevent over-stressing of expensive cables.


Smart controller vision systems

GigE and USB3 industrial cameras, when used in conjunction with a SmartVision controller, provide sharp images and high-quality inspection.

The machine vision systems offer flexibility, ease of operation, and extend vision capabilities in resolution, speed, interfaces, and flexibility.

Industrial cameras with a SmartVision controller provide powerful visual quality control, identification, error proofing, and image processing. The systems are suitable for optical-based traceability, verifying automated processes, and vision-guided robotics.

Balluff Inc.

Precision vertical elevator stage

AZV9010 and the AZV9020 motorized Z-axis linear positioning stages have vertical travels of 10mm and 20mm respectively.

The vertical motion of each Z-axis stage is driven by an 8mm diameter ball screw with a 1mm lead and guided by cross roller bearings. Resolutions of 0.10µm or 0.05µm with 10/20 micro-steps per step motor drive, and 0.5µm repeatability make the Z-axis stages suitable for microscopy, inspection, metrology, positioning, photonics, sampling, and laser drilling and machining.

Each stage has a 90mm x 90mm (3.543" x 3.543") table with threaded holes for fixtures or tooling. The stages feature a 5µm straightness and 30µm dynamic parallelism, along with 5mm/sec (0.196ips Z-axis travel speed and 5kg (11.0 lb) load capacity. Each stage has a knob for manual adjustment, and the stages can be supplied plug-and-play with a motion controller.

Optical Engineering Systems Inc. (oes)