Intralogistics: integrating process technology and assembly unlocks new potential

Logistics has always been a key area of the automotive industry. However, the focus is now also increasingly shifting toward intralogistics. As two examples show, it functions as a control center to an ever greater extent, and even uses process technology in certain instances.

To build truck axles, assembly workers need various parts such as driveshafts, bevel gears, differential cases, bearings, and gear wheels delivered to the production line with precision and on time. Some of these components come from the hardening process. Yet the output rate in the heat treatment section doesn’t correlate with the assembly rate.That is why the truck manufacturer stored these parts on the floor and in standard shelving that served as interim storage space. However, the search for the right parts not only involved a great deal of time and effort on the part of the employees, but process reliability, quality, and documentation also suffered as a result.

Fully automatic, flexible intralogistics for truck axle assembly

These problems are now a thing of the past. These days, bevel gears, bearings, and gear wheels come from the hardening process in metal baskets. They bear a specific code which clearly identifies them. In addition, an RFID chip is attached to each of the baskets. The intralogistics solution from KardexRemstar then stores the metal baskets containing the cooled parts in five Shuttle XP storage lifts using a fully automatic conveyor belt system. Before that, a camera system photographs the codes assigned to the various parts so that the location of each component is precisely recorded as it is placed into the interim storage system.

“When requested by the assembly section, the intralogistics solution also retrieves the necessary components completely automatically and makes them directly available to the assembly workers via a conveyor system at precisely the time they are needed,” says Hans-JoergBraumüller, one of the automotive experts at KardexRemstar. Besides conveyor systems and shuttle storage lifts, the intralogistics system also includes Power Pick Global warehouse management software developed by Kardex and the control technology for the material flow. The warehouse management software communicates directly with the production planning system and the truck manufacturer’s ERP system. “This solution no longer requires manual support, because it works fully automatically from the hardening kiln to the assembly line,” saysBraumüller. The dimensions of each Shuttle XP unit measure around10 x 4 x 3 meters (HxWxD), equating to 20 times the original storage space when all the units are taken into consideration.

Intralogistics with a holistic approach

A large part of value creation in the automotive sector is attributable to logistics. At some manufacturers, logistics expenses even exceed production costs. It goes without saying that the greater the outsourcing of production steps and the longer the logistics chains, the higher the costs. “Potential lies in improving the intralogistics side and adopting a holistic approach in order to achieve the optimum state together with production,” acknowledgesKnut Alicke, supply chain expert at McKinsey & Company in Stuttgart. However, while theintegration ofintralogistics with assembly is already working in some cases, the integration of internal goods and material flows with the extralogistics side is still in the early stages.

Over the coming years, carmanufacturers will benefit most from investing inintralogistics processes which will make their systems more flexible and efficient, according to supply chain expert Alicke. Thus, companies would have to make investments in keeping with the motto “flexibility despite automation,” because in order to be able to react to fluctuating demand and increasing product diversity, manufacturers should opt for semi-automated, flexible solutions instead of high-tech automation solutions. The McKinsey expert expects efficiency to be raised even further by investment in technology that guarantees a continuous flow of information. This would include RFID, video streaming for inventory management, pick-by-voice for efficient order picking, and computer-controlled enhanced reality perception to improve assembly processes.

Entire plant automated with shuttle storage lifts

One major German car manufacturer has been taking advantage of the potential presented by intralogistics from the very start. When planning a new mass-produced model, it also made provision for a fully automated plant. The factory produces side skirts and bumpers for the still young car model using injection molding machines. KardexRemstar has installed an interim storage system with shuttle storage lifts downstream of these machines. A fully automated robot uses its grabber system to retrieve the side skirts and bumpers from the injection molding machines and deposits them there.
Besides the interim storage function, the storage lifts also assume a process technology role, because this allows the molded parts to be checked while they are cooling. To this end, specially purified and dust-free air streams in from the side of the storage lifts and flows upwards and out again in a controlled manner. When switching from one part to another, the robot also fetches the appropriate gripper system from the Shuttle XP. However, the tagged side skirts and bumpers have to cool down for different lengths of time, depending on the wall thickness. The warehouse management software Power Pick Global also has this information. Furthermore, it stores all other relevant data and supplies it to connected software systems via corresponding interfaces. In addition, all storage lifts have a programmable logic controller.

“We have integrated the storage lifts into the overall safety technology of the robot cell and we also control communication with the robot. Before that, however, we had to take a really good look at the material flow, process landscape, and overarching functional sequences,” reports automotive expertBraumüller.The car manufacturer now has a fully automated plant which not only adheres to the correct cooling times, but also ensurescomplete process reliability and observes all quality criteria. At the same time, the system documents the entire production process.

Automation of logistics processes on the rise

“Companies in the automotive industry will also feel the effects of the much-cited demographic change in future. Consequently, the need to integrate robots into logistics and work processes will rise,” predicts Holger Seidel, head of the logistics and factory systems business area at the Fraunhofer IF in Magdeburg. He also sees robotic assistants playing an increasingly more important role. Accordingly, there will be a growing need for technologies that facilitate safe cooperation between humans and robots – in other words, innovations and developments which allow people and robots to work together safely without the need for protective fences. In this regard, the focus remains on so-called low-complexity automation.