General Motors Revs Up its Robotic Factory Fleet

GM and other global auto manufacturers are pioneers in adopting factory-based automation and continue to be the robotics industry’s largest customer. 

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Photo: General Motors

An early adopter of industrial robots, General Motors has connected about a quarter of its 30,000 factory robots to the Internet, allowing it to gather cloud-based performance analytics. And the behemoth automaker is already reaping the benefits of less down time for its machines, according to a recent report in Bloomberg Markets.

In the last two years, GM has avoided 100 potential failures of vehicle-assembling robots by analyzing data they sent to external servers in the cloud, said Mark Franks, Director of Global Automation, at a recent International Federation of Robotics conference. The network connectivity is preventing assembly line interruptions and faulty robot replacements, which can take up to eight hours to complete, according to GM.

“If we can avoid a disruption in our manufacturing, we can save ourselves a significant amount of money. It’s a pretty good payback,” he added.

Driving More Robotics

GM and other global auto manufacturers are pioneers in adopting factory-based automation and continue to be the robotics industry’s largest customer. According to the Federation of Robotics, automotive factories installed 17,600 robots, compared to 5,100 for electronics manufacturers and 1,900 for metal producers in 2016.

By adding Internet monitoring of its machines, GM can order parts when it detects they’re wearing out, instead of having to store them at the factory. That just-in-time process reduces inventory and saves money.

The efficient, networked robots are also creating new opportunities for human capital. While some factory workers fear that robots will take their jobs, GM’s numbers are proving otherwise. According to a report by the Association for Advancing Automation, GM has increased its new U.S. robot applications by 10,000 since 2012, while boosting U.S. employment by almost a third, to 105,000 jobs.

The latest wave of networked, data-gathering robots hold the potential to propel a global industrial market even higher. According to Research and Markets forecasts, the global industrial robotics market is predicted to reach $41.18 billion by 2020, at a CAGR of 6.5 percent for the period.

Robotic Help for Humans

Hooking robots to the Internet for preventive maintenance is just the start of a spurt of new robotics technology, Franks added. He notes that the company is now using robots that can work safely alongside humans in its factory that produces the Chevrolet Volt, a popular plug-in hybrid vehicle.

Typically, GM would separate people and robotics with locked gates, mostly for safety reasons. The company is now working toward developing more human-safe robotics, which gives it the ability to use robots side-by-side with operators.

BMW is already testing robots that can collaborate with workers in its factories for selected tasks. GM is taking a similar approach, targeting ways in which robots can help humans complete specific projects. One such development aims to increase human strength. GM, in partnership with NASA and Bioservo Technologies AB, a Swedish medical technology company, is developing a RoboGlove, to give employees a more muscular grip.

Photo: GM Newsroom

The RoboGlove uses leading-edge sensors, actuators and tendons that are comparable to the nerves, muscles and tendons in a human hand. One design requirement for the team was to use robotic technology to operate tools designed for humans. According to GM, the development team “achieved unprecedented hand dexterity” in the latest design, which it applied to RoboGlove.

Read more about RoboGlove and watch the video of workers using the glove.