Robots in Car Manufacturing

by Michael Hinckley

After Henry Ford invented the assembly line, the construction of automobiles, cars and trucks remained unchanged throughout most of the 20th century. In the 1980s, however, the process underwent another dramatic change: the introduction of robots to perform jobs once reserved for humans.


Robots were initially retained to perform precise welding chores and other repetitive tasks that humans had long found boring, monotonous and injurious. By using robots to weld, handle dangerous objects and place items, auto manufacturers were able to ensure a consistent product with a minimum of worker injury. Currently, 50 percent of all robots in use today are used in automobile manufacture.


To make a robot work, a computer program is installed on its controller computer. This provides a set of precise instructions--based on geometry and carefully timed--that tells the robot where to place things, how to rotate them, where to weld and how to perform all of its other functions. Robots do not think for themselves, and must rely on humans to provide instructions. Robots also can work in more extreme environments on their own, or they can work alongside humans, assisting them in their day-to-day jobs--such as moving or rotating a car so humans can work on parts of it that would normally be difficult to reach.


Almost all manufacturing robots are single arms with computer controls, and do not look like a typical science-fiction "robot." Different robots will have different appendages, depending upon their job(s). For instance, a robot that places windshields will have a vacuum-powered suction grip to handle the smooth glass, while a welding robot will have an arc welder to fuse two pieces of metal together.


Robots have been a boon to the auto-manufacturing industry. They have significantly reduced worker injuries, including repetitive stress injuries and more significant mishaps that can do major harm. Additionally, the robots turn out a more consistent product at a significantly cheaper cost than can humans. In the 1970s, American auto manufacturers were maligned for the poor quality and bad engineering of their vehicles. Currently, robotic-assisted auto manufacturing allows a car to be made with much more precise welds, closer tolerances and more accurate engineering overall than could be achieved with human help. Finally, robots save on the cost of labor: There are no sick days, strikes, work slowdowns or other problems that can crop up with humans. Robots can, in fact, work around the clock with a minimum of human supervision.


As manufacturing becomes more automated, there will be less need for human workers in the auto industry. Currently, humans still work alongside robots for many reasons, most important of which is the ability of people to reach areas the larger robot arms cannot. As robotics technology improves, it is conceivable that the auto industry will become fully automated or employ human workers only sporadically. In the future, positions in the auto-manufacturing industry (at least in production facilities) will probably entail dealing with the robots themselves and not the cars or trucks; repair, programming and maintenance of robots will still need to be done by humans.

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