COLOGNE, Germany - Ford is introducing the company’s first fully automated wheel assembly facility at its Cologne-Niehl manufacturing plant.
The state-of-the-art system is manned by three robots, took just six months to design, plan and implement, and uses advanced camera technology to match the right wheels for each model.
Traditionally, wheels are usually fitted to new vehicles manually, but the work is strenuous, ergonomically demanding and monotonous.
“Due to the repetitive physical strain for the workers, wheel assembly was not really an attractive job. In each shift, up to 600 wheels are fitted, that’s 3,000 wheels per week”, says Operations Manager Rene Wolf. “Once the new automated system is up and running, wheel assembly employees will be deployed in more ergonomic stations.”
The new, fully automatic assembly process was designed and developed by Ford manufacturing engineers, supported by IBG Automation. Wheel assembly is carried out by three Kuka robots. Two are located at each side of the vehicle body to screw on the wheels. A third robot sits underneath the body providing the right wheels and nuts for each model.
Since the wheels are fitted to vehicles on a moving assembly line, the process requires a high degree of precision. The highly complex task of aligning lug holes in the wheel rim with the bolts on the brake disk is supported by camera systems which scan the wheel rims, calculate position and rotation and feed the data through to the robots.
Through the Plant Vehicle Scheduling (PVS) system, the provision robot knows whether alloy or steel wheels are to be fitted and selects the correct lug nuts and passes them to the assembly robots.
“Such a highly complex assembly system was unimaginable a few years ago. It is now possible thanks to new, innovative camera technology”, adds Wolf.
The fully automatic wheel assembly has a number of advantages. By reducing false assemblies or damage to the rims it significantly improves production quality. Ford is currently considering implementation in other European vehicle plants.