Ford’s ever-smarter robots are dashing up the meeting line

Ford is adding artificial intelligence to its robotic assembly lines.
Enlarge / Ford is including synthetic intelligence to its robotic meeting traces.

In 1913, Henry Ford revolutionized car-making with the first moving assembly line, an innovation that made piecing collectively new automobiles sooner and extra environment friendly. Some hundred years later, Ford is now utilizing artificial intelligence to eke extra velocity out of as we speak’s manufacturing lines.

At a Ford Transmission Plant in Livonia, Mich., the station the place robots assist assemble torque converters now features a system that makes use of AI to be taught from earlier makes an attempt learn how to wiggle the items into place most effectively. Inside a big security cage, robotic arms wheel round greedy round items of steel, every in regards to the diameter of a dinner plate, from a conveyor and slot them collectively.

Ford makes use of expertise from a startup referred to as Symbio Robotics that appears on the previous few hundred makes an attempt to find out which approaches and motions appeared to work greatest. A pc sitting simply outdoors the cage exhibits Symbio’s expertise sensing and controlling the arms. Toyota and Nissan are utilizing the identical tech to enhance the effectivity of their manufacturing traces.

The expertise permits this a part of the meeting line to run 15 p.c sooner, a major enchancment in automotive manufacturing the place skinny revenue margins rely closely on manufacturing efficiencies.

“I personally assume it’ll be one thing of the longer term,” says Lon Van Geloven, manufacturing supervisor on the Livonia plant. He says Ford plans to discover whether or not to make use of the expertise in different factories. Van Geloven says the expertise can be utilized anyplace it’s doable for a pc to be taught from feeling how issues match collectively. “There are many these functions,” he says.

AI is commonly seen as a disruptive and transformative expertise, however the Livonia torque setup illustrates how AI might creep into industrial processes in gradual and sometimes imperceptible methods.

Automotive manufacturing is already closely automated, however the robots that assist assemble, weld, and paint automobiles are primarily highly effective, exact automatons that endlessly repeat the identical activity however lack any skill to grasp or react to their environment.

Including extra automation is difficult. The roles that stay out of attain for machines embody duties like feeding versatile wiring by way of a automobile’s dashboard and physique. In 2018, Elon Musk blamed Tesla Mannequin 3 manufacturing delays on the decision to rely more heavily on automation in manufacturing.

Researchers and startups are exploring methods for AI to present robots extra capabilities, for instance enabling them to perceive and grasp even unfamiliar objects shifting alongside conveyor belts. The Ford instance exhibits how current equipment can usually be improved by introducing easy sensing and studying capabilities.

“That is very beneficial,” says Cheryl Xu, a professor at North Carolina State College who works on manufacturing applied sciences. She provides that her college students are exploring ways in which machine learning can enhance the effectivity of automated techniques.

One key problem, Xu says, is that every manufacturing course of is exclusive and would require automation for use in particular methods. Some machine studying strategies could be unpredictable, she notes, and elevated use of AI introduces new cybersecurity challenges.

The potential for AI to fine-tune industrial processes is big, says Timothy Chan, a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering on the College of Toronto. He says AI is more and more getting used for high quality management in manufacturing, since computer vision algorithms could be educated to identify defects in merchandise or issues on manufacturing traces. Related expertise may help implement security guidelines, recognizing when somebody isn’t sporting the proper security gear, for example.

Chan says the important thing problem for producers is integrating new expertise right into a workflow with out disrupting productiveness. He additionally says it may be tough if the workforce isn’t used to working with superior computerized techniques.

This doesn’t appear to be an issue in Livonia. Van Geloven, the Ford manufacturing supervisor, believes that shopper devices reminiscent of smartphones and recreation consoles have made employees extra tech savvy. And for all of the speak about AI taking blue collar jobs, he notes that this isn’t a difficulty when AI is used to enhance the efficiency of current automation. “Manpower is definitely crucial,” he says.

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