Johannes Hartlieb (left) and Rudolf Gerstl with the fenceless robot at Magna's Lannach, Austria transmission facility.
Breaking Down Barriers
An advanced robot that can lift up to 330 pounds and operate without any safety fences is previewing the future of manufacturing at Magna’s Lannach, Austria transmission facility.
“This unique technology is ready for production,” said Alexander Zak, Magna’s director of corporate R&D and advanced robotics. “The greatest challenge is shifting the mindset that robots need to be in a cage. We are taking that barrier away and changing the perception of safety with robots.”
Fitted with laser sensors and 3D cameras, similar to technology used on self-driving cars, and clad with a “skin” made of soft foam, the revolutionary robot does the heavy and tedious work once done by unskilled employees at triple the speed of comparable robots on the market.
“Magna does not make robots, but we are developing enabling technology for robots that will take us into the next era in manufacturing,” Zak said.
More to discover …
Instead of fences, the retrofitted robot, a collabo- rative effort between Magna Powertrain and Cor- porate Engineering and R&D, is behind three “safe- ty zones” monitored by laser sensors and defined by colored lights.
If a worker approaches the yellow zone marked on the floor, the robot automatically slows down and if the worker enters the red zone or touches the robot’s “skin,” it makes an emergency stop.
“This type of robot could be used in the diecasting area, where it’s not possible to touch hot parts or in heat-treatment areas,” Hartlieb said. “We’re studying use cases, and planning to install more of them.”
TÜV AUSTRIA, an independent health and safety consultant, was on board with the project from the research and development stage to start of production. Together we defined, discussed and implemented the corresponding health and safety standards. For future fenceless robotics systems using similar enabling technologies, this documentation can serve as a basis, but local and national standards will have to be considered.
The greatest challenge is shifting the mindset that robots need to be in a cage. We are taking that barrier away and changing the perception of safety with robots.
The Magna robot at Lannach lifts heavy baskets and boxes filled with parts that are then loaded into a washer. In the past, employ- ees used a crane or lifted and transferred some of the parts them- selves, a time-consuming task that required physical strength.
“The people who used to do this work have been moved to better jobs,” said Johannes Hartlieb, a 20-year Magna veteran who is re- sponsible for machine planning at the Lannach facility. “One man was moved to a laser-welding cell. He has a new job that is more comfortable and challenging.”
Large-scale industrial robots have been working on the factory floor in the automotive industry for years, always bolted down be- hind fences to protect humans.
But this fenceless robot, which has been in place since April 2018, is a next-generation version that is working safely near humans. Such robots can cut manufacturing costs by 30 percent and save millions, Zak said, as they conserve space and reduce capital costs.
“One of the key challenges was figuring out how workers could safely approach the robot, because it has more weight and takes a longer time to stop,” Hartlieb said.
Magna’s director of corporate
R&D and advanced robotics
The engineering team at Magna’s advanced robotics R&D testing lab in Holly, Michigan is working on Version 2 of the fenceless robot at Lannach, and is expected to deploy the updated robot at an unspecified Magna division in North America in 2021
Version 1 can only pick up boxes, bins and trays. The more sophisticated V2 will be able to pick up individual parts, a difficult and time-consuming task, for humans.
Magna engineers, such as Max Eboch, work at the Holly lab “teaching” robots adaptability with the help of camera systems that enable the robots to “see” and accurately find small parts with human-like dexterity.
Finding the 63 pieces that make up the complete assembly for a door latch, one of the most complex auto parts to produce, is one of the critical challenges for next-generation robots. Consider this: it takes 30 workers per shift to assemble a door latch. Magna’s Dortec division alone produces up to five million door latches per year on one production line.
Eboch, who earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Kansas and used to build Lego robots as a boy, controls the robot arm from a computer, as it searches for parts scattered on a table. Accuracy is the goal, as the robot searches for the right part.
“This is not just fantasy,” said Alexander Zak, Magna’s director of corporate R&D and advanced robotics, who is watching the process. “What we’re doing is industry- focused R&D from a blank sheet of paper to production and scale. To develop technology is the easy part; to launch it into hundreds of Magna divisions is a different challenge.”
Max Eboch, Magna engineer
This is not just fantasy. What we’re doing is industry-focused R&D from a blank sheet of paper to production and scale.
From Smart Factories
to Science Olympiad
Ying Zhang, a Magna senior research engineer, supervises the team and develops new technology at the company’s advanced robotics R&D testing lab in Holly, Michigan and at a smaller robotics lab at its Troy, Michigan headquarters.
In her spare time, the mother of two coaches her son Matt’s seventh-grade Science Olympiad team and has served as a First Robotics mentor. Zhang recently helped Titan, the Science Olympiad team, to build a basic robot arm and structure that catches balls with two fingers.
She also has helped the aspiring young scientists construct “ping pong parachutes,” little rockets made from plastic bottles and launched with a manual bicycle pump in the gym at Smith Middle School in her hometown.
“I tell the students I work with real robots,” said Zhang, a 20-year Magna veteran with a background in the aerospace industry. “And that I wish I could bring them to the robotics lab in Holly. They would be amazed.”
What the students would see is a high-tech workshop and a team that is envisioning “robots that will benefit humans and provide them with a healthier work environment,” as Zhang puts it.
The daughter of two engineers, Zhang grew up in Chengdu, China and earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Tennessee. Her parents were the inspiration for her career choice.
“When I was growing up, we had no dishwasher or TV,” she recalled. “My dad made his own TV. I was young, but I remember the capacitors. It was a black- and-white set and it worked.”
Today, Zhang and her team are developing the technology for everything from huge fenceless robots designed to tackle heavy payload work on the assembly line alongside humans, to small robots that can pick up tiny parts and perform repeatable movements.
“These robots will help humans go into smarter, more satisfying jobs in smart factories,” Zhang said. “And they will save on cost, time and resources while improving production efficiency.”
Ying Zhang (left) and Alexander Zak
When I was growing up, we had no dishwasher or TV.
My dad made his own TV. I was young, but I remember the capacitors. It was a black-and-white set and it worked.
Ying Zhang, a Magna senior research engineer
HOW A ROBOT
LED TO A BETTER JOB
As an unskilled worker, Rudolf Gerstl used to operate a crane and physically load baskets filled with parts into a washer for hours every day at the Magna transmission plant in Lannach, Austria.
“It was lots of hard, manual work,” Gerstl said.
But the installation of a huge fenceless robot that now does the work changed everything.
Today, Gerstl, has been promoted to a skilled position as a machine setter operating a different robot set up behind a fence at a laser- welding machine at the facility.
Following several months of training before starting his new job, Gerstl now operates and programs the robot to make minor modifications. Today, he also manages two unskilled workers.
“I have a better job that is easier and more interesting,” Gerstl said. “I love the work I do, and I love to work with robots.”
The father of two young children has this advice for others who may be concerned about the changes this new era of manufacturing will bring: “If you are willing to learn and grow, robots won’t be a problem for you. You will always need workers to manage and operate the robots.”
Rudolf Gerstl, a machine setter
If you are willing to learn and grow, robots won’t be a problem for you. You will always need workers to manage and operate the robots.