Modular automation in the automotive industry
Until now, it was common in the automotive industry to purchase an individual system for the automated production of a specific product or workpiece. This investment paid for itself due to the plant and product runtimes of almost ten years each. But the situation is increasingly changing: production capacity utilisation with a single product type produced in high volumes over a long period of time is only possible in rare cases. In addition to the decreasing product quantities and runtimes, there is also an increasing variety of series products that can no longer cope with the long plant runtimes.
SW Automation, a subsidiary of Schwäbische Werkzeugmaschinen GmbH (SW), recognised at an early stage that this discrepancy can only be eliminated through very flexible, modular automation solutions. The company‘s development from a special plant manufacturer to a supplier of modular automation solutions reflects this realisation and shows how the company is meeting future market requirements.
SW Automation GmbH was founded in 1998 as a special plant manufacturer near Friedrichshafen on Lake Constance. The company designed solutions according to special requirements for large-scale industry based in the region, ranging from workpieces of various sizes to assembly automation. In order to make the development and construction of the unique systems more efficient in the future and to take into account the changing requirements in the automotive sector, the company began designing an automation platform based on a modular system in 2014. Its standardised modules can be combined into an individual system according to the respective production concept and application. “We see ourselves as an architect of manufacturing plants, especially for Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers in the automotive industry. Currently, seven standard modules are already available in the company‘s modular system”, explains Makis.
Standard interfaces allow adaptation in the field
The entire engineering process, from mechanical to software design, is carried out in-house. The assembly of the manufactured parts is also carried out by SW Automation, as are final installation, commissioning and service. The standard modules are plug-and-play compatible with SW machine tools as well as systems from other manufacturers. “Since the variable and flexible interlinking takes place via standard interfaces, downstream processes or third-party machines can also be integrated into the overall system, and subsequent adjustments in the field, including system downsizing, are easily possible,” explains Makis. In order to achieve increased availability, the automatic connection of the processes is not firmly coupled, but automatic buffers are installed, for example, so that failures can be better cushioned. The basic modules – for example for machine assembly or subassembly – are designed by SW Automation so that they can be used for as many product variants as possible. They can be supplemented as needed with individual, more customised components. A modular robot, for example, does not only have a single hand to lift cardan shafts or housings with different outer contours from the conveyor and place them in the machine.
To enable even more flexibility for the entire production plant, the individual plant controls are also connected to the SW platform. SW products and the machines provided by the customer for downstream processes are brought together in this higher-level control system. The software allows central access to the plant status, control of production orders, item-related data storage and retrieval for traceability purposes, remote maintenance functions, KPIs and web visualisations.
Turnkey solutions for automated production
SW Automation thus offers complete turnkey solutions in association with SW, which include all components up to the control of the complete system. In addition, the company also designs automation solutions outside of machining and independently of the parent company‘s machine tools. For example, the company develops systems for assembly automation, such as for the processes of screwing, joining and gluing. These systems also benefit from a connection to the SW platform.
Thanks to the modular principle and the other services provided by SW Automation, the entire automation concept no longer needs to be changed for individual product changes. In view of the increasing number of variants and shorter product runtimes, this ensures long-term investment security for automotive suppliers.
“For an optimal solution, we plan the entire process chain with the customer, from the individual component to the packaged product, and configure a modular-based flexible plant concept”, said Sven Makis, Managing Director, SW Automation.