By Norihiko Shirouzu, Edward Taylor and Nick Carey
Carmakers have big plans for their next generation of factories: smarter designs, artificial intelligence and collaborative robots building a wide range of vehicles on the same line
The plants will also feature a component they say is the secret ingredient to flexible manufacturing: humans.
SAIC-GM’s factory in Shanghai, which opened in 2016, is one of the world’s most advanced auto plants, assembling Buick minivans and Cadillac sedans and SUVs, including the CT-6 plug-in hybrid for U.S. consumers.
GM’s Shanghai plant is expected to eventually produce new electric vehicles, primarily for the Chinese market, executives have said.
The plant, which GM operates with Chinese partner SAIC Motor Corp Ltd, feels almost like a scene from a Star Wars film, with battalions of machines quietly working in self-directed harmony.
Collaborative robots, or “cobots,” painted matte green and unrestrained by the steel cages that surround their larger industrial cousins, are being programmed to work alongside humans on the line. One unusual operation advanced models now handle is installing gears in transmissions.
“They can actually feel; they can pick up a gear set (and) mesh the gear into a transmission,” Paul Buetow, GM’s China manufacturing chief, said on a recent tour of the plant. The robots reduce strain on humans and improve quality and consistency.
Globally, automakers are embracing Industry 4.0 — a term coined by German manufacturers for the digitalization and automation of assembly processes — and the consensus is that fewer people will be required in future factories. But humans will still be needed.
“This is not about cutting head count,” said an insider familiar with industry efforts to upgrade and streamline auto plants in the United States, China and Europe.
The focus instead is on improving flexibility and efficiency between machines and humans as automakers figure out how to build multiple models — powered by gas engines, electric motors, or both — in the same factory.
“It’s not just blood and sweat that goes into manufacturing on an assembly line,” said United Auto Workers president Dennis Williams. “It’s critical thinking that automation can’t replicate.”
DOING THE DIRTY WORK
A new generation of cobots is working alongside humans at General Motors Co plants from Shanghai to Orion Township, Michigan.
The Orion plant, north of Detroit, is one of the industry’s most flexible. It builds three models on one line: The gas-engine Chevrolet Sonic, the battery-powered Chevrolet Bolt EV and the self-driving Cruise AV.
More than 800 robots work there, including a half-dozen cobots painted green to denote they can safely operate around humans.
The machines handle the “dirty, dull, difficult and dangerous” tasks while people do the work requiring dexterity and intelligence, says Marty Linn, GM’s principal engineer for robotics.
In one section of the plant, cobots glue protective pads onto headliners, a tough job for humans because the glue is heated to scalding temperatures before it is applied.
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