US auto industry's drive to automation

Impressive as it is, a robot is only one piece of an expanding automation system that will revamp the automotive assembly plant of the future. ''Flexible automation is the key,'' asserts General Motors chairman Roger B. Smith.

The need to produce cars more efficiently is greater, given the pressure of higher costs and competition from abroad. Automation should also improve quality.

When GM builds its facility to produce a family of all-new small cars, code-named Project Saturn, in the late 1980s and early '90s, it will outmode anything now on the line, including the brand-new state-of-the-art assembly plants which went on stream last spring in Orion Township, Mich., and Wentzville , Mo.

Even the Japanese-inspired rebuilding of Buick City in Flint, Mich., 60 miles north of Detroit, will pale before Saturn, says Smith. The Saturn plant will be a major step ''toward overcoming the Japanese cost advantage in small cars,'' the GM chairman adds. A further goal ''is to make solid advances in small-car safety, handling, and durability.''

To prove its point, the world's largest automaker is committing hundreds of millions of dollars. Project Saturn, Smith insists, is a clean-sheet approach to producing small cars. Compared with GM's all-new assembly plants, ''you wouldn't think it was the same product,'' he adds. Employing modular-design concepts, futuristic robotics, and all-new factory systems, the plant will be a far-ahead application of what is only on the drawing boards today.

Car-assembly plants of the future will include not only programmable controllers and automatic guidance systems, but also programmable nonsynchronous conveyor systems that can be stopped at any predetermined spot where a robot, or any other type of automation, might be required to do a particular job.

Ford is thinking along a similar line. ''It's very difficult and very expensive to try to link an automation system with something that's moving along a line,'' says Paul F. Guy, director of manufacturing engineering for Ford. ''It's hard to synchronize it and then have the robot or other device do its work while something is moving. What we're trying not to do is chase the product with automation.''

The ideal way to automate is with an off-line, nonsynchronous loop where the part, the product, the car body, can be stopped and the robot can do its job before the part moves on. Shorter assembly lines should result.

''Over the next five to 10 years the move will be to shorten the overall length of the continuously moving conveyor line and do more work off line in module-type assembly loops,'' says Mr. Guy.

With this concept, work teams will assemble a total subsystem of a vehicle with normal human motions rather than in a confined space dictated by the position of the part in the car. Workers will perform a larger variety of operations as well. Some of that concept will be applied at Hermosillo, Mexico, where Ford is building a plant to produce a small car designed by Mazda, its Japanese affiliate.

Future robots also will feature increased tactile and visual sensing capability. ''Flexible automation is the new key to the thing,'' says GM chairman Smith, ''and that's where it will go in the future. A robot will pick a tool and do a function; then it will put that tool back and pick another tool.''

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