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Robots in an auto lab show off the drill that assembly lines will get

Ford Motor Company's robotics lab, larger even than that at the General Motors Technical Center in nearby Warren, Mich., shows the importance of automation to the auto industry.

In 1983 the Ford lab trained more than 3,000 people. A major meeting is held four times a year, explains James Dillon, director of the lab, ''to discuss successes, failures, things to do differently. There's a constant flow of activity between Ford facilities worldwide.''

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A robot is supposed to provide better quality and consistency, particularly in a fatiguing job. A manufacturing operation can also be more cost-effective, because a robot can function for $6 to $8 an hour, compared with several times that figure for human labor.

Machine-vision systems, which the auto industry is employing increasingly to check product quality and dimensional accuracy in car assembly, can give sight to blind robots, thus boosting their versatility on the production line.

By 1990, vision-and-sensory-equipped robots are expected to do the job just about as well as human labor. This is shaping up as an important problem as automakers reduce their human labor needs by up to 20 percent, the International Trade Commission predicts. Ford alone now operates some 1,500 robots worldwide, about half of them in North America, with the rest in Europe. By 1990, it expects to have 6,000 to 7,000.

''In two months our projection may be even higher,'' reports Paul F. Guy, director of manufacturing engineering for Ford. ''Every time we look we find more applications.''

Pointing to a nearby robot in a walk-through of the lab, Mr. Dillon, the director, asserts: ''We've got nine of those going down to Lima (Ohio) for crankshaft handling.'' The lab designs the operational hardware, sets cycle times, trouble-shoots problems, and guides production people in choosing the right machine.

''All new robots are certified here,'' says Dillon, adding: ''I can't think of any projects in which we didn't design the grippers.''

Ford has been using robots in its automotive assembly operations, primarily welding, since 1960. Besides welding and painting, robots are also being used more and more for machine loading and unloading as well as for assembly operations.

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''Assembly is perhaps the big field yet untapped,'' says Guy. ''Up to now there's been a technology problem in terms of precision accuracy of robots and the fact that they've lacked any tactile and visual sensing capability. All that is beginning to change, as more sophisticated robots come on stream.''

A robot, he says, is not like a vacuum cleaner or toaster oven that you just plug in. It has to be ''trained,'' or developed, to do a specific job, and this takes a tremendous amount of application engineering. Further, choosing the right robot for a job is crucial. A mistake costs money and time. Does it have the proper reach, load-carrying capability, accuracy, and repeatability to do the job for which it was intended?

''Then you have to design the part-feeding systems and the gripper design and some type of inspection or gauging system to ensure that the job is done right, '' says Dillon.

Up to now the big problem has been that many of the robotic companies, particularly the smaller ones, want to sell only ''the generic beast and then leave all the application engineering up to the customer,'' complains Guy.

This is slowly changing as more and more large producers - General Electric, IBM, Westinghouse, and others - make entire factory-automation systems. Companies that supply only robots are beginning to fall out.

The biggest problem at present is networking - the ability of the microprocessor units to talk to one another.

''To really have a computer-integrated manufacturing facility,'' Mr. Guy says , ''you need to have many shop-floor devices that can communicate through a common data highway to some central controller.

''If the robotic systems can't talk with one another through a common data highway,'' he adds, ''you can't integrate the manufacturing system. We're all working to increase the compatibility of microprocessor equipment.''