Friday, 7 June 2013

ABB wins prestige Mini robot contract

Swedish robotics vendor ABB has won a contract to supply robots and factory automation equipment to produce the next generation of Mini at the car maker’s UK plant.

The UK plant at Oxford, which is the company’s main stay for the production of the Mini range of cars, is set to install 1,000 robots as part of its next phase of expansion to raise output from 200,000 to 280,000 in the near term.

At present Plant Oxford has around 500 robots which bring together some 340 panels required to make the Mini body shell or body-in-white (BIW). Typically each body shell has some 4,000 spot welds while laser cameras check the accuracy of the assembly.

But as part of a £750 million investment, major upgrades are taking place at Plant Oxford plant. According to the latest issue of Professional Engineering, ‘current models are built on a unique platform, but the next generation car will be based on a front-drive architecture shared with other BMW vehicles’

As well as an intended further 1,000 robots, the plant has added a robotic glazing cell and ‘is introducing automated guided vehicles (AGVs) to transport components to the line at the right moment’. Also, BMW uses Ubisense 'real time location systems - RTLS' technology to automate lineside supply at its Regensburg facility in Germany. The technology could be used at Plant Oxford in association with AGVs.

BMW is no newcomer to AGVs. The BMW plant in Spartanberg, South Carolina, uses AGVs as does the company’s UK engine plant at Hams Hall in the West Midlands. Swedish company Atab, which describes itself as ‘world leaders in AGVs’, announced in April of this year a contract from BMW to rebuild 10 AGVs for BMW UK’.

The monthly magazine reports that the extended use of robots is intended to ensure quality and reduce costs.

The magazine quotes Frank Bachmann, managing director of Plant Oxford: “You cannot guarantee repeatable quality of the body shell without robots and automated measurement systems. But robots also bring savings in time and the cost of labour, which are essential to help us stay competitive.”

 He added: “We have invested a lot of money in height-adjustable skillet lines so that line operators do not need to bend and stretch.”

Automated glazing equipment has been introduced as glazing is increasingly part of the rigidity of the vehicle. It is an important part of the structure.

Bachmann noted that Plant Oxford will provide production expertise for the new operation at VDL Nedcar (already reported in in the Netherlands, which will produce versions of the Mini and will use Ubisense technology.

The expertise will be focused towards dealing with the high levels of customerisation that Mini demands; as well as in operating multi-model production lines, something that is completely novel to the VDL Nedcar operation.

Significantly, Bachmann said: “VDL Nedcar does not have to build the car in exactly the same operation as we do. But it needs to understand how to build the car, and to understand our quality requirements. It has to deliver the same quality or even better. That way we can learn from each other.”

VDL Nedcar managers have been to Plant Oxford to see how the BMW production system works.      


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