ABB: Battery Trays Are Transforming Manufacturing ProcessesBy Alejandro Enríquez | Wed, 11/11/2020 - 06:00
Q: What has been ABB’s focus throughout 2020?
A: ABB is constantly changing and adapting. We are focusing now on meeting the needs of the different segments we participate in. Robotic applications are not the same for an OEM and for a Tier 1. Last year, ABB bought B&R, an Austrian automation and process technology company. We integrated this company into our portfolio, which we also restructured after listening to what different industries said they needed.
Q: How does ABB create value for the automotive industry?
A: ABB provides the automotive sector not only with robots but also functional packages, modular solutions and complete customized solutions. OEMs are looking for final assembly solutions including body assembling, painting, powertrain and final trimming. Final trimming in particular still requires a high amount of manual labor. ABB solutions for a body-in- white assembly require a large number of robots, carriers, spot-welding systems and other pieces of equipment. This part of the process has been highly automated for many years. The added value we provide in this segment are functional packages, in addition to selling robots separately. This comes in handy for technology integrators that are looking for an already functional welding robot instead of just a robot that later needs to be adapted for welding.
For painting applications, practically all lines are highly automated. Our added value in this part of the process comes from IoT features integrated into the paint booth that can provide insights on paint consumption.
During final trimming, seats, dashboards and other components are placed in the car. This process remains highly manual with a great number of people involved. Collaborative robots present great opportunities in this part of the process. There are different levels of collaboration and companies are evolving to decide where they do need a more flexible robot or a collaborative robot that works along with humans.
For Tier 1 companies, we continue to offer metal joining solutions such as spot welding, arc welding, friction steel welding, clinching, drawn arc, laser welding, aluminum spot welding and other processes needed for auto parts manufacturing. Regarding plastics, we are seeing greater needs for ultrasonic welding, gluing or clipping. We continue to work on developing efficient solutions through packages where our robots can provide added value to the process. For all of these applications, we have our facility in San Luis Potosi where our engineering and project management teams develop turnkey solutions for our customers. With all the expertise from our Global Solutions Centers bring to the table, we are able to introduce innovations into the Mexican market.
Q: How is electrification influencing manufacturing processes?
A: Instead of a traditional powertrain, electric vehicles have a battery tray that is taking processes and materials to the next level. Some are in the development stage and are not standardized as with internal combustion engine vehicles. Moreover, there are differences among battery trays from Tesla, Daimler or Ford. OEMs are conducting most of these developments and processes in-house and this will remain the case for a while.
Still, ABB is working closely with Tier 1 companies in battery tray development. Tier 1 manufacturing processes are changing considerably, which is why we decided to focus on specific parts and customers rather than generic products or applications. A battery tray, for instance, requires spot welding, arc welding, gluing and friction stir welding in the same process. All these procedures are done separately but for the effective construction of a battery tray, these processes need to be integrated into the same cell or cell sequence. This is forcing us to be more flexible when it comes to robots and processes. We are learning alongside Tier 1s to find the optimal solution that best fits each client.
Q: How has ABB experienced the acceleration of automation and Industry 4.0 due to the pandemic?
A: Our product development strategy already considered the advancement of digitalization. What the pandemic has done is to prove the vulnerabilities of a manufacturing plant that strongly relies on manual labor. The pandemic was unprecedented but many companies are taking digitalization and remote monitoring into consideration for their 2021 budget. Before COVID-19, digitalization was a fashionable topic the industry was aware of but did not really embrace. Now, it is critical. ROIs sometimes took a backseat when the priority was to remain in operation.
Although investments are not yet there, companies are getting their budgets ready to implement these solutions. ABB has been a strong player in this area for years. Since 2019, all of our robots are able to connect to Wi-Fi networks. We have also introduced OmniCore, our new controller for smaller robots. This is the sixth generation of our platform, which is now slimmer, lighter, more intuitive and more energy efficient.
We are running tests alongside Ericsson to make robots for 5G networks, which enables a faster communication speed, low latency and ultimately a smarter and more connected manufacturing. There are many potential applications for 5G networks. Mexico needs to address its regulatory and technical elements before 5G can penetrate the country. It might not be for the general public, however. A better approach will be to place some antennas in industrial niches that can take full advantage of the potential applications. Our portfolio goes in that direction.
Q: What is your perspective on additional business models based on manufacturing data?
A: This is a complex topic as it involves data ownership. ABB has different agreements with its customers to access the data ABB robots generate. An agreement is signed where the customer acknowledges that they are allowing ABB to use the data, whether we sell the robots directly or through a third-party integrator. When we sign a maintenance contract, they also authorize us to use their data. Another scenario is when companies restrict ABB from accessing their data and we just enable the robots and have access to safety-related data.
I am dubious about additional business models stemming from manufacturing data and there is still uncertainty about how this could work. The business model can work through digital services, apps and subscription services like Amazon or Apps. We could think about licenses or special apps that enable different features. Additional business models will rely on connectivity and data analysis capabilities to predict different variables, such as maintenance and production.
Q: What are ABB’s plans for 2021 and the post-COVID-19 world?
A: Robots will carry on. ABB is improving its offering by making robots lighter and we are growing our capabilities through acquisitions. Apart from B&R, we acquired Codian Robotics, a Dutch company focused on delta robots for food and beverage sector. Robot mechanics will continue to evolve alongside collaborative robots, which need to have the right application. By the end of 2020, we will release a new lineup of collaborative robots. As for software and simulation tools, such as Robot Studio, virtual commissioning will advance to include augmented reality, real-time collaboration and interaction in a manufacturing cell. In a post-COVID-19 world, these will be a need rather than a luxury.
The pandemic triggered the right motivation to accelerate technological development and ABB will continue to develop products to expand its portfolio. We will also create the right partnerships while being a dual channel for our customers. Transversal approaches and integration through different industries were important before. Now, we are seeing a strong focus on particular segments. Companies can strengthen their offering by partnering with companies from other sectors to develop automotive applications. Precision is essential and the pandemic is taking technology to the next level.
ABB is a Swiss-Swedish multinational corporation headquartered in Zürich, Switzerland, and focused mainly on robotics, power, heavy electrical equipment, and automation technology