What Drives the Change From “Made in China” to “Intelligent Manufacturing in China”?

The European-based factory had previously used cobots of both American and German brands for parts assembly and handling, with the goal of freeing employees from heavy manual labor. After piloting in the factory, it is determined that the lightweight and flexible cobots may help the factory achieve flexible automation.

Background 01

The “flexible manufacturing” program initiated by the automation department plays a key role in lean manufacturing. Founded in 1990, the plant currently employs over 1,000 employees and has become a leading brand in the automotive industry. To further consolidate its growth, the client established an automation division in 2006. They provide customers with all types of automotive components, from body structure to parts assembly, including various standard and customized products. The project team soon found that cobots could inspire a wealth of new ideas in developing modern assembly concepts. Cobots can work alongside employees, which opens a new door for automated production.

Demo of a cobot tightening station

02 Pain points

The team of engineers is not new to this technology as they have used two kinds of cobots from Germany and American companies. In 2020, the factory considered introducing more cobots in the parts assembly section. The robotic arm use the end-of-arm screw gun to screw screws into the brackets, with two screws to be locked per bracket. The screw gun provides a torque of 7.5Nm and completes the tightening task in 16 seconds.

This work was originally done by hand. The manufacturing engineer explains, “Employees on the production line often have to carry out strenuous manual tasks, but cobots can free them up. In the past, they had to overcome strong counter forces when screwing, and one day of intense work would leave them sore hands and aching shoulders.” Now we try to use collaborative robots to assist operators.

Demo of a cobot tightening station

In two shifts, the cobot can process up to 180 products per hour. After optimizing the production process, cobots can even recognize the type of the parts to be handled and always follow the corresponding program. Each robot performs approximately 5,800 screw tightening acts in 16 hours of work per day. These simple and tedious works are now all performed by robots, resulting in a significant reduction in labor load and an increase in production consistency.

The benefits of deploying cobots were obvious to the car manufacturer, but the automation department has more ambitious goals. They aim to replicate this application with a higher ROI and improve the overall operational efficiency.

Demo of a cobot tightening station

03 Solution

For automation engineers with 5 or 6 years of experience, they are setting their sights on “made in China” cobot brands. As globalization and cross-border cooperation progresses, foreign manufacturers no longer regard products “Made in China” just as “bargains”; For product stability and service timeliness of domestic brands, more and more people are giving positive feedback.

With the concerted efforts of the European car manufacturer and integrators, they evaluated many domestic brands and finally extended an olive branch to Elite. Elite EC66 (6kg) cobot was deployed at the assembly station to work with an operator. The bracket and cushion are first assembled by an operator, then screws are pre-positioned to the position to be tightened and fed to the cobot tightening station. After the robot detects that the workpiece is in place, it will lock those screws. When the assembly completes, the workpiece will be removed by the operator and transferred to the next process for assembly. The operator again feeds the workpiece that has not yet been machined to the table.

In addition to those features, such as easy programming, it can also be quickly integrated with the (end-effector) screw gun. Users are particularly interested in the safety of cobots – the need for human-robot collaboration and frequent interaction are fully integrated in this application. In particular, as a Tier One manufacturer of automotive plants, the client has set strict safety regulations. Judging from the fact that Elite was selected, we can infer that domestic brands may have a great chance to go global.

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