The TecFactory: From the idea, through testing to series production

Daimler is a leader in innovative production technologies. For example, the company was the first in the automobile industry to recognise the potential of the sensitive lightweight robot and successfully test it for series production. Mercedes-Benz tests such new production concepts and ideas in the TecFactory. Numerous applications have already made their way from an idea, through testing and into series production. They include innovative logistical solutions using driverless transport systems.
An unassuming outside stairway leads into the inner sanctum of the production specialists and process engineers at Mercedes-Benz: "Ringbahn" (= "Circuit") is the name given to the spotless test factory in Building 40, so called because of its circular overhead conveyor system for vehicle bodies. The TecFactory has been in operation at the Sindelfingen plant for one and a half years.
"This is where we try out the production processes of the future," says Andreas Friedrich, Head of the Technology Factory, Mercedes-Benz Cars, Daimler AG. "In the ideal scenario, the applications go straight from here to series production. This then gives us room to try out new ideas." The large production shop resembles an inventors’ convention: engineers and technicians are busily engaged at several workstations, operating small and medium-size robots, which grab and move components, or install components such as bodyshell grommets or sun visors.
Human-Robot cooperation: hand-in-hand, without protective fencing
Immediately noticeable in the test factory is the absence of protective fences, and there is open access to all workstations. "Fenceless production and Human-Robot cooperation (MRC) are the specialist terms used," says Friedrich. "This new, cooperative form of working without protective fencing is possible because the latest generation of robots are sensing." These intelligent robots use their sensors to register their immediate surroundings and detect resistance. For example, they can stop their movement sequence if there is a person within their range of activity. Or they recognise collisions with components and can pause their movements.
Sometimes direct contact between man and machine is even expressly desirable: some lightweight robots start their work after being given a slight push. Or they are literally taken in hand: the employee moves their articulated arm to the starting point of the relevant task and they get to work. In so-called "Robot Farming", one employee will often look after several robots.
Programming skills are becoming increasingly unnecessary to operate the robots: Alongside the direct physical interaction described above, they can be controlled more and more intuitively using graphic interfaces on monitors and tablet-like input devices, or with a 6D mouse. This further development of the PC mouse allows robot movements to be controlled on six axes directly at the point of application. New interfaces such as these also relieve humans of monotonous and demanding physical work.
But even though these cooperative robots work hand-in-hand with people, so to speak, "safety first" is of course a top priority at Mercedes-Benz. All robots must meet the stringent German health & safety at work regulations, and only then are they also used in other plants around the world. Daimler is working together closely on this with employer liability associations. These extensive tests include, for example, the use of load cells to verify that force and pressure limits are adhered to in the event of a collision.
One good example of the sophisticated safety concept at Mercedes-Benz is the robot in the test factory which positions the side members for the E-Class. Right next to this long, sharp-edged steel panel is an employee installing small components – something previously unthinkable.
Workstations in the TecFactory – new solutions for the factory of the future
From a flash of inspiration to the test stage and series production – in the ideal scenario, this is the career path taken by the applications tested by Mercedes-Benz in the TecFactory. Here is an overview of some of the current projects:
  • Human-Robot cooperation (MRC): production of dual-clutch transmissions -- Hand-in-hand Cooperation: A modern lightweight robot installs the components of the dual-clutch transmission (DCT). For a long time, only the human hand could detect whether the gears of the clutch plates were a perfect fit. The latest generation of sensing robots are now also able to feel whether the components are still interfering - and therefore in need of slight adjustment during assembly - or whether they fit. Following certification by the employers’ liability association, this robot type is already in regular operation in the Hedelfingen annexe of the Untertürkheim plant.
  • Human-Robot cooperation (MRC) and driverless transport vehicle (DTV): installing the battery into a hybrid vehicle -- More Flexibility: The batteries for electric and hybrid vehicles must offer as much operating range as possible, and are correspondingly large and heavy. This makes their installation in vehicles difficult. Workers were previously assisted by an expensive, bulky and inflexible piece of handling equipment similar to a crane. Owing to its size, the battery also had to be turned before and after insertion through the luggage compartment aperture, so as to prevent damage to the edges of the aperture. A modern, medium-size robot controlled along a "virtual rail" now installs the battery with very high precision and without turning it, thus simplifying production. During the process, an operator using his eyesight monitors the robot's working area and removes any wiring that might be hanging in the insertion path of the battery. Because the robot responds very rapidly when the operator's hand leaves the controller (dead man's handle), man and machine can work closely together. This production technology is currently being introduced at the Bremen plant as part of the Mercedes-Benz hybrid offensive.Thanks to visualisation on the accompanying programming unit (SmartPad), the employee also receives information on the process status, line movement and actions currently required, enabling them to communicate and interact with the robot. The vehicle body is delivered for battery installation by a driverless transport vehicle (DTV). Only a keen eye will notice the special pattern on the floor of the TecFactory: permanent magnets are installed all over the floor. Together with the route transmitted via Wi-Fi by the control system, this invisible magnetic matrix enables the driverless transport vehicle to navigate. This magnetic matrix navigation is extremely flexible: changes in the production process require no physical modifications, as only the route needs to be adapted by the control system (more about DTS in a separate section).
  • Human augmentation: calibration of head-up displays with mobile devices -- Man Replaces the Robot: The mirror of a head-up display (HUD) must be adjusted after installation, so that the display is exactly in the driver's field of vision. This calibration was previously carried out by two fixed robots, but for the new E-Class a lightweight robot on a movable carriage will be used instead (see the section on the E-Class). In future, things will become even more simple and flexible: An employee sits behind the wheel with a tablet computer equipped with two additional cameras. One camera calibrates the tablet's position to a certain point in the dashboard. Arrows on the screen tell the employee in which direction to move the tablet. Once in position, the second camera then checks the position and form of the image. The parameters are sent to the HUD's control unit by Wi-Fi, via the OBD interface, and the necessary adjustments are made. The advantages of the new method compared to previous procedures are considerably lower costs and much more flexibility, as the employee can carry out the calibration at practically any point on the assembly line. The first low-volume production use of this technology is planned for mid-2016.
  • Virtual assembly: final vehicle assembly – Testing by Avatar: Similar to how a gaming console with movement control mimics the swing of a golf club or tennis racquet, virtual assembly enables components to be attached to a vehicle with remarkable realism. By testing with an avatar, experienced employees can assess how best to execute the respective task. Mercedes-Benz then implements these findings in production planning, as it did when preparing for the production of the forthcoming E-Class. More about that in the chapter “Testing by Avatar”.
  • Human-Robot cooperation (MRC): final assembly with InCarRob -- Robot on Board: With "InCarRob", the robot sits inside the vehicle and handles strenuous overhead tasks for which a human would also need to get in and out (a so-called "Red Spot" activity in the Mercedes-Benz classification system). The InCarRob can also be active while the vehicle body is being transported around the factory, thereby improving efficiency. In the TecFactory, the use of the "InCarRob" is being tested for assisting in installation of the headlining and for attaching seat belts, sun visors and grab handles. This method is being used for the first time in an operational trial in the production of the Mercedes-AMG GT. The robot assembles the rear bulkhead and parcel shelf, screwing around 20 M5 and M6 bolts into their threads. Development engineers are already preparing for future use of this process; in readiness for "InCarRob" technology, Mercedes-Benz is planning corresponding mounting points in the vehicle body and is standardising the hole matrix in all variants of the C and E-Class.
  • Augmented reality: production planning and quality control with mobile devices – Helpful Information Overlay: The production process can be optimised by fusing real and virtual planning at an early stage. Production quality, for instance, can be analysed on a mobile device using AURA (Augmented Reality Apps). This provides a comparison of actual versus specification and virtual parts are evaluated in a real environment. Another example of augmented reality is automatic quality control with IRIS (Intelligent Reporting and Information System). This brings together on a screen, virtual images of the specified design status and camera images of the actual status. In the current E-Class, for instance, this is used to inspect the installation of a diagonal strut in the chassis. It saves time-consuming rectification further along the assembly line and assures quality.
  • 360° networking: remote access to production facilities -- Round-the-Clock Support Worldwide: One precondition for the transparency of all production processes, equipment monitoring and access in real time is for all elements in the system to speak the same language. Mercedes-Benz ensures this by comprehensive, worldwide use of "Integra" control software: from sensor level in individual machines, all the way to production control, and also in its cooperation with all suppliers and system partners. The second prerequisite is the ethernet-based networking of all automation components – more than 250,000 worldwide. One practical benefit is that maintenance and problem solving can be handled remotely and improvements can be applied across all facilities. Thus, the four C-Class plants (Bremen, Beijing/China, East London/South Africa, Tuscaloosa/USA) were able to support each other during start-up. This is demonstrated via real-time access to a body-in-white welding station in Tuscaloosa. More on that in the next chapter “ Smart Factory”.
  • Start-to-finish digital process chain: powertrain – Without Delay Straight into Series-Production: The basis for all simulations is a 3D model from the design department. The casting or forging concept is worked out in close cooperation with the design engineers, and verified and optimised using extensive simulations. For the first sand-cast prototype components after the first simulation phase, the moulds are produced literally overnight using 3D sand printing.The digital process chain continues when the components are machined. Standardised machine modules and production processes are efficiently combined with the help of digital production planning. NC programmes for complete machining with all tools are simulated, optimised and passed directly to the machine tool that produces the parts. The machined parts are then fed to the assembly line. This is all comprehensively planned on the basis of the same data. Digital simulations are used to assess whether all the parts of an engine can actually be assembled, at which workstation which part will be installed and what ergonomic stresses this entails for the employees.
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