The groups that make up the AMC have existed at Ford for some time, but they were consolidated under one roof at the new Redford location in August 2018, and Automotive Engineering was invited with other media recently to tour the facility. Ford claims it already leads all North American automakers in manufacturing capacity utilization, and the AMC is designed to ramp up prototyping on technologies such as 3D printing, augmented/virtual reality (AR/VR) and robotics before bringing the tested innovations to its plants globally.
“One of the advantages of the Advanced Manufacturing Center and the people that are here,” said Michael Mikula (right), Ford’s global chief engineer for advanced manufacturing, “is to create a place where we can collaborate across technical disciplines and develop comprehensive, innovative solutions that can be immediately deployed into our plants with a high level of confidence and success.”
“Certainly we want to reduce the cost to deliver vehicles to our consumers,” Mikula explained when asked what that success looks like. “We want to reduce the amount of time it takes to do the manufacturing, engineering and product realization so that we can be faster to market. And then we want to make sure that the people that are working in our processes are working efficiently and safely.”
Additive manufacturingFord purchased the third 3D printer ever made in 1988, and currently has 90 3D printers at 30 locations globally producing parts and tools. The AMC features 23 3D printing (aka “additive manufacturing”) machines and Ford is working with 10 3D manufacturing companies including Stratasys, Carbon, HP and Desktop Metal (in which Ford has taken a minority stake), many which have their latest 3D printers on-site on a consignment basis. Printing materials include steel (left), nylon powder, carbon and sand.
Ford uses its 3D printers to produce “tens of thousands” of parts annually, most for product-development prototypes, but they also create production parts. The upcoming Shelby Mustang GT500 has two 3D-printed brake-bracket parts and the F-150 Raptor features a logoed, instrument-panel spotlight-switch blanking plug specific to the Chinese market.
One of the most valuable aspects of 3D printing is the ability to create custom production tools. During the tour of the AMC, engineers displayed several examples, including a $70 transmission input-shaft O-ring-sleeve tool that is $830 less per-unit than its machined counterpart, and a new transmission-case-assembly grip that permits the use of the existing assembly line and pallets, an innovation expected to save the company $2 million.
Augmented and virtual realityThe new AMC has a large space (rife with LED-lit videocard hardware that would make most gamers envious) dedicated to the latest in augmented-reality (AR) and virtual-reality (VR) tools, which are becoming competitive advantages as manufactures look to compress production timetables and operate in global markets.
VR assembly lines are designed, configured and operated on-site at the AMC by engineers and line-worker representatives long before an actual assembly line is constructed or product development is even completed. This allows engineers to identify potentially hazardous maneuvers and fine tune workflows well before Job One.
The AMC’s latest AR tools permit Ford manufacturing teams to work collaboratively on training or assembly techniques, enabling staff on different continents to work in the same virtual experience simultaneously. This unlocks solutions in real time and allows Ford to optimize its manufacturing workstations for each location globally.
Collaborative robotsAnother key aspect of the AMC is Ford’s work with collaborative robots or “cobots.” These robots are smaller than typical assembly-line machines and operate at lower speeds and torque levels so they can operate without protective cages alongside people. The AMC’s role is to prove out the more complex cobot deployment tasks and to identify potential issues before installation in an assembly plant.
Cobot applications are often for tasks such as part picking or otherwise ergonomically taxing, such as one at Ford’s Livonia Transmission Plant that was so difficult for employees that they could only be on that station for one hour at a time.
Application flexibility for cobots (from suppliers such as Kuka, Universal Robots and Fanuc) is high as system controls are software based. The cobots can also integrate tools such as cameras and AI programming to perform tasks such as quality screening for wiring-harness connectors. As engines roll off a production line every 20 seconds, a cobot can pre-screen them for human inspectors, only flagging those that might need additional hands-on review. Continue reading »