Automotive Powertrain Pushes Automation

Carmakers Demand More Vision, Robotics, Safety From Fives Cinetic

By Aaron Hand

In the 1910s, Henry Ford changed the face of manufacturing, and the automotive industry has been at the forefront of automation ever since. Today, automotive powertrain assembly demands some of the highest levels of manufacturing controls and automation.

The automotive powertrain is where Fives Cinetic Automation has its primary business; where customers such as Ford, GM and Chrysler typically dedicate large amounts of money to the manufacturing equipment and integration. "Our location works primarily with automotive powertrain (engine/transmission) in discrete assembly and automation," says Corey Radley, technical software manager at Cinetic Automation in Farmington Hills, Mich. "We do the machine design, the machine build, controls design, controls build and integration, turnkey through installation, and production startup and support."

Fives Cinetic Automation was formed in 1965 as part of Ingersoll-Rand, feeding off the surge in automotive automation. The division was bought in 1999 by the Fives Group, a $3 billion French company active in industrial automation and machine build/design across both the process (steel, aluminum, concrete, energy) and discrete industries.

Of about 300 employees, close to two-thirds are in mechanical, electrical, controls, software or fluid power engineering, or production control. Currently 25 employees work at Fives Cinetic through a cooperative education program with local universities (read "Cooperative Provides Skilled Workers").

In the past year, Cinetic Automation has completed programs to build a gasoline engine assembly line for the Chevrolet Volt, Model S battery assembly for Tesla Motors, and 7.62 mm bullet assembly for the U.S. Department of Defense. But the company's bread and butter come from powertrains. Besides the big three U.S. automakers, customers include a long list of manufacturers around the world, such as Toyota, Volvo, Fiat, Honda, Hyundai, Caterpillar, John Deere and Paccar, just to name a few.

The 100,000-mile warranties that have become common for powertrains have forced increased automation, Radley says, with a typical turnkey engine/transmission assembly line costing $20 million to $50 million. "The controls engineering teams from these customers demand cutting-edge technology, and we provide that," he says. "For years, we have been providing safety PACs, Ethernet-based fieldbus, machine vision, safety over fieldbus, robotics, etc."

The assembly requirements are strict, Radley says, and equipment is pretty controls-heavy. "There's a ton of machine vision, a ton of robotics, and industrial Ethernet is pretty ubiquitous."

Safety has become huge, Radley notes, pointing to a shift from PLCs to safety PACs. "The same PAC that's doing the control is also handling the fail/safe portion," he says. "We even do quite a bit of safety over industrial Ethernet, with Profisafe or EtherNet/IP safe."

As with other industries, there's been increasing call for more flexible machines, to enable tasks to be dynamically redesigned among machines. "GM Powertrain worldwide standardized on a new platform called eFACS (Flexible Automation Configuration System), which allows dynamic process mapping from a single console," Radley cites as an example. "The goal would be when a future engine model or transmission model is designed, they could retool the existing lines quickly, cheaply, and without much effort to run new models."

The use of machine vision has grown tremendously, Radley says, with more than half of the processes now equipped with cameras. Vision is typically used for error-proofing, reading 2D barcodes, and robotic guidance.

Fixed 2D and 1D readers, and handheld scanners have become integral to a manufacturing industry that demands traceability down to the bolt level. This is driven by recalls and warranties — carmakers want to know, in the case of a recall, exactly who was responsible for the part. "They report every single piece of variable process data up to the server-level systems," Radley says.

Cinetic Automation's equipment ranges from fully automatic to fully manual. On stations where operators are required to be present, unique logins let manufacturers identify even which operator worked on a specific part or subcomponent, Radley adds. "There's a full build history in terms of variable process data."

This kind of data collection requires a high level of communication between machines, and Cinetic Automation's three main customers all use industrial Ethernet. Radley even expects to see wireless networking make an appearance in powertrain assembly before too long. "I think we'll see it first on some special applications — probably robotic end-of-arm tools," he says. "Our customers have been pretty reluctant, but maybe in next 10 years we'll start to see wireless." With a car engine being made every 30 seconds, any amount of downtime in automotive production is extremely costly. "They need to be comfortable that the technology's been out there; that it's been battlefield-proven long enough."

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