GM’s smart manufacturing means more robots

August 1, 2018 06:01 CET

TRAVERSE CITY — General Motors is growing its use of connected robots that can help the automaker identify maintenance problems before they occur.

GM launched the Zero Down Time robot program with Japan’s Fanuc about three years ago. It has grown to include more than 13,000 robots in 54 of GM’s plants globally.

Under the program, robots remotely upload their data to Fanuc to measure their performance against the company’s expectations to track each robot’s overall health and detect anomalies and potential maintenance issues, according to Dan Grieshaber, GM’s director of global manufacturing integration.

“There are directions that come back to our maintenance departments that tell us what we need to go look at, proactively, in advance of a robot breaking down and impacting our production,” he said during a presentation about the future of manufacturing at the CAR Management Briefing Seminars.

The Zero Down Time program launched with GM, but Fanuc has since grown it to include other manufacturers.

The connected robots are part of what GM and others refer to as Industry 4.0, or “smart manufacturing.” Both are all-encompassing terms for new manufacturing processes and tools being implemented.

Other GM initiatives outlined by Grieshaber included wearable technologies and “collaborative robots,” or “cobots,” that can safely operate around human workers without the use of safety cages. They also included emerging technologies such as drones to inspect plants and machinery.

“This is not about technology for technology’s sake,” he said. “It’s about solving specific business problems or changing our environment such that we can solve the problems we anticipate tomorrow.”

Part of those problems is worker fatigue. The automaker provides wearable technologies such as an “iron hand,” which GM developed as a wearable robot for some workers to ease repetitive motions such as gripping parts.

GM also continues to utilize 3D printing in plants to streamline operations. Officials have said the technology has the potential to save millions of dollars in annual production costs.

“There isn’t one individual silver bullet that’s going to solve all the problems we talked about today,” Grieshaber said. “I think, sometimes, we can fall into the trap of, ‘What’s that next miracle drug that’s going to help transform our business?’

“It’s really going to be, in my view, a combination of a lot of things, including integrating a lot of what we already do today that’s going to really change the fundamentals of how we’re viewed as manufacturers.” 

You can reach Michael Wayland at mwayland@crain.com.

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