Ford Gets Swept Up in Industry 4.0 Collaborative Robot Craze

Automotive assembly production line workers suggest what to automate at German Ford plant.

(Image courtesy of Ford Motor Company.)

Collaborative robots, or cobots for short, are becoming quite popular for industry applications including injection molding, pick and place and other jobs that are considered less than desirable for humans.

Ford is now using collaborative robots to help workers fit shock absorbers to Fiesta cars as part a trial in the company’s investigation into Industry 4.0 technologies.

The cobot models from KUKA measure barely over 3 ft. in height but can work side-by-side with humans in strategically placed mounts at two workstations, eliminating the need for a lot of heavy lifting.

Workers use the cobots to lift and automatically position shock absorbers into the vehicle’s wheel arch, before pushing a button to complete installation.

The robots use sensors to stop immediately if they detect an obstruction, like a human body, in their path.

“Working overheard with heavy, air-powered tools is a tough job that requires strength, stamina and accuracy,” said Ngali Bongongo, a production worker at Ford’s Cologne plant. “The robot is a real help.”

Ford’s new robot program was developed over the course of two years with KUKA Roboter Gmbh, a German robot manufacturer. Ford is continuing its experiment with cobots, asking 1,000 production line workers in its Cologne, Germany facility to identify what tasks they believe a robot could be best suited to.

Some tasks that could possibly be automated in the future include interior assembly, assuming cobots have access to highly dexterous end-effectors and are optimally mounted.

“Robots are helping make tasks easier, safer and quicker, complementing our employees with abilities that open up unlimited worlds of production and design for new Ford models,” said Karl Anton, director of vehicle operations, Ford of Europe.

The image of cobots making a toast with production line workers is a cute one and inspires confidence that the technology is benefiting these workers just as much as it’s benefiting the manufacturer’s bottom line. However, there will no doubt be nay-sayers who will cry out, “This is just the beginning! Their jobs will be completely automated by the end of the year!”

To these readers, I’d like to reiterate that the cobots currently in place at Ford’s Cologne plant are merely doing the heavy lifting and dirty work for production line workers.

As robots automate the more dirty, dangerous and physically arduous, low-skill, high-risk positions, no one is losing a job worth keeping, at least for now.

For more automation news, stay tuned and follow us on Twitter.