The first cobot or collaborativerobot installed at Magna’spowertrain plant in Neuenstein,Germany can high-five co-workerswith his “hands” and has expressive“eyes” made up of tiny LEDs thatchange color. If everything isworking fine, his eyes are green. Ifthere is something wrong, theyturn red.
This cobot seems so full of personality thathe’s even earned a nickname.
It’s “Sebastian” because he reminds co-workers of the singing crab in Disney’sanimated feature film The Little Mermaid. Thecobot’s computer screen even features a tinyimage of his crustacean namesake.
But unlike the cartoon character thatcomposes catchy Caribbean songs like Underthe Sea, Magna’s Sebastian has a moreserious and important assignment.
His task is to relieve shop-floor employees ofsome of the monotonous and tedious workat the plant. Sebastian’s job is to put gasketsinto the three pumps that go into atransmission. It’s a daunting task, since theNeuenstein plant builds approximately 5,400pumps a day. Unlike his human counterparts,Sebastian (technically a programed ABB“Yumi” model) is capable of working aroundthe clock, seven days a week.
“The people who were doing this have beenmoved into better jobs on the assembly line,”said Robert Kraft, the Magna processengineer responsible for the Sebastianproject. “Operators find it cool that Sebastianis on the line. He’s a robot you can look atand immediately understand what he’sdoing. He has two arms like you and he’s thesize of a human body. You can touch himand he doesn’t hurt you. Everyone is proudof him.”
Today, Sebastian is such a part of the teamthat some of his co-workers have suggestedoutfitting him with a COVID-19 mask, so helooks like everyone else.
On a more serious note, Kraft said Sebastianis helping to create “an environment whererobots and people coexist.”
Magna engineers are examining theNeuenstein assembly line to find other usecases for cobots like Sebastian. In themeantime, plans for upgrades to Sebastiancontinue.
“We want to make him even more human,”Kraft said.
Robert Kraft: The Process Engineer
Robert Kraft says being the process engineerresponsible for the Sebastian cobot projectat Magna’s Neuenstein, Germany, powertrainplant has been “fun, creative and fascinating.”
In other words, a great start for a first jobafter finishing his education.
Kraft came to Magna three years ago afterearning a master’s degree in productionmanagement from Mannheim University ofApplied Sciences in Germany.
The challenge: help the Magna plant takeanother step in automation technologies bylaunching the first collaborative robot usedon the assembly line.
“An industrial robot normally communicateslike a washing machine,” Kraft said. “A codesuch as ‘F11’ may pop up on its screen, and aco-worker has to figure out the problem.Instead of error codes, a cobot like Sebastianis programmed to look for a co-worker andindicate ‘I need more material’ or ‘I’ve run outof gaskets.’ He is able to raise his arm andwave at co-workers.”
When Sebastian joined the assembly line,Kraft would often sit next to him during theday and monitor him as he executed histasks.
“I am very proud of him,” Kraft said. “He’s myfirstborn.”
The decision to join Magna was the rightone, he notes.
“Neuenstein is a cool place to work,” Kraftsaid. “I’m free to choose the projects I wantto work on and to look for projects that willbring Magna the most benefit.”
The DifferenceBetween Cobotsand IndustrialRobots
A cobot or collaborative robot like Sebastianfeatures human-like dexterity and requiresno fence or similar safety equipment toensure safe operation alongside humans inan assembly plant. This allows otheroperators to work closely to the robot or fillits material magazines while the robot isrunning in automatic mode.
Traditional industrial robots are typicallylarge, fixed equipment often located behindfences or inside of cages for safety reasonsin a manufacturing facility.
The Sebastian Project: Positive Friction
The Sebastian cobot project at Magna’sNeuenstein, Germany powertrain plant wasan “important milestone” that highlights the“entrepreneurial spirit” of the company,according to Alexander Zak, Magna’s directorof R&D – Advanced Robotics.
“Divisions are trying out new technology bythemselves,” Zak said. “This approach drivesus to be successful and to have a little bit ofcompetition within the company. We have‘positive friction’ within Magna. We are allbrothers and sisters, but as with all brothersand sisters, there is competition.”
Sebastian is not a one-off within thecompany.
By 2023, there will be several hundred ofnew Cobot’s, fenceless robots and traditionalrobots with bin picking software and 2D/3Dvision cameras to locate parts at Magna’sglobal facilities, said Zak, who leads theadvanced manufacturing initiative within thecompany.
“Robots and people are an unbeatablecombination,” Zak said. “We see lots ofpotential and opportunities.”
He added: “We’re focused on robots becausethey can do the dirty, dull and dangerousjobs. By increasing the level of automation,we can provide better jobs for ouremployees and help them enhance theirskills. There will be an important shift in theworkforce. If you’re a material handler today,you may become a robot maintenanceperson or the shift leader of a ‘robot farm.’
“Everyone needs to get into the mindset ofwhere we are going and why. We’re doingthis to increase productivity and reliabilityand reduce capital cost and production floorspace.”
Magna Advanced Robotic Software:‘A Huge Breakthrough’
Making robots more adaptable and flexible isthe goal of Magna Advanced RoboticSoftware or MARS, designed with a softwaredevelopment and integration partner.
Ten applications utilizing the first version ofthe software within Magna were installed in2020 in seven divisions across Europe andNorth America; 15 Magna additionaldivisions are slated to receive the softwarebefore the end of 2021. The software isdesigned to aid robots with 3D vision andenable them to pick randomly mixed partsfor processing.
“It’s a huge breakthrough,” said AlexanderZak, Magna director of R&D – AdvancedRobotics located in the USA. “MARS givesrobots ‘eyes’ so they can see and pick upparts.”
Magna divisions in Bari, Italy; Rosenberg,Germany; Ramos Arizpe, Mexico; Muncie,Indiana, and MSM in Ontario, Canada, will beamong the first to benefit from MARS.
For example, MARS will aid the Bari divisionin building the DCT300 transmission.
“There was no way for the robot to pick partswithout 3D vision,” said Duane Matheson,engineering implementation manager forMagna R&D located in USA. “The parts,which include two gaskets, three pumps andbolts, are not in the same position everytime. We are providing software to add visionto the robot.”
At Ramos Arizpe, MARS will help robots withthe assembly of driveline components.
“Our divisions are looking at how to putrobots to use in unique and better ways,”Matheson said. “We’re providing a tool tohelp them. MARS doesn’t exist anywhereelse. It puts us in a leadership position.”
My Favorite Robot
In his off hours, Alexander Zak and his 10-year-old son Viktor tackle “fun projects” likebuilding Lego robots.
“You can program them with an iPad andthey can execute certain tasks and even playice hockey,” said Zak, Magna director of R&D– Advanced Robotics. “The hockey robot hasan arm you can program to swing. Wheelsdrive the robot forward to the puck.”
He adds: “Viktor is interested in any type ofrobots from Star Wars to Drones to industrialrobots and COBOTS. I tell him robots willhelp support people in producing things inthe future, it’s good to learn how they work,the mechanic, electric and the software thatcontrols them.”
Duane Matheson: My Favorite Robot
Creating robots that “danced” to the musicduring Jon Bon Jovi concerts was part ofDuane Matheson’s repertoire before comingto Magna.
During the rock singer’s Circle Tour, giantLED video panels were moved with precisiontiming by ABB industrial robots. Bon Jovidanced on the panels, which morphed into astairway as he walked up the various screensduring the concert.
“The biggest challenge with the Bon Jovirobots was timing and overcoming what theartistic people wanted to do that was notsafe,” said Matheson, engineeringimplementation manager for Magna R&D. “Ibasically had five robots that could squishevery one of us.”
Mixing entertainment, robots and high techhas been a key part of Matheson’s workexperience. He also worked at a stuntcompany in Las Vegas that made high-speedflying winches for the Spiderman movie.
“Making people fly through the air was partof my dream job doing controls for movies,stunts, shows and Cirque du Soleil,” he said.“That multi-disciplined experience hashelped me with what I do today at Magna.Robots are a key part of a lot of the stuff I’vedone in my life. I’m intrigued by the speedand the strength of industrial robots.”
Duane Matheson, engineeringimplementation manager for Magna R&D