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Paexo exoskeleton takes the strain out of overhead work at Volkswagen in Bratislava

Jonathan Newell finds out how Volkswagen and Škoda are deploying state-of-the-art automation systems and 3D printing to break records in the factory… and on the track!

Rapid changes in automotive technology are accompanied by corresponding upheaval in the test, simulation, design and manufacturing technologies supporting the industry. Given this, it’s no surprise that the large car producers are emerging as some of the prime movers in implementing such cutting edge approaches to production engineering as 3D Printing, advanced automation and the connected world of Industry 4.0.

The Volkswagen Group has seen a flurry of activity in recent months at its main manufacturing sites as well as subsidiary, Škoda at its factory in the Czech Republic. The investment and development effort that VW has put into its manufacturing infrastructure has paid off this summer with industry accolades as well as record-breaking success on the track.

Exoskeletons in Bratislava

Keeping people at the heart of skilled production is a pervasive theme in industry with a rise in the use of collaborative technology including cobots and automatic systems designed to aid, rather than replace, workers.

At its Bratislava plant, Volkswagen is ensuring the continued health, safety, efficiency and satisfaction of its staff through the use of physical and behavioural ergonomic support systems for use at manned workstations where the ergonomics of the operation can’t be improved or automated.

In such physically demanding environments, the company is using support devices including exoskeletons to enable a considerable reduction in the effort required. Currently being tested by 30 workers at the plant, VW expects to roll the approach out to further workers in Bratislava and other plants.

The “Paexo” exoskeleton is the result of research work that’s been going on since 2012 and is designed to assist workers involved in prolonged static overhead working.

According to VW’s Eric Reuting, the pilot project to use 30 Paexo exoskeletons in Bratislava is the largest evaluation project of its kind in Europe and involves a physical support system that weighs just 1.9kg and takes considerable strain out of arduous overhead working.

No Uphill Struggle

Volkswagen has also been using new manufacturing techniques to break records on the track this year with the “Race to the Clouds” Pikes Peak hill climb being achieved in an all-time record breaking time of 7:57.148 minutes in an electric Volkswagen ID R car. This was also the first time the 92 year old record had ever been broken using electric propulsion.

Just three weeks later, Romain Dumas again piloted his ID R to a new record of 43.86s at the Goodwood Festival of Speed Hillclimb event.

The double success of the 500kW electric racing car is seen by VW’s Chairman Dr Herbert Diess, as good preparation for the company’s major electric car offensive which it plans to start next year, with the ID range of vehicles being at its core.

Success in racing is never easy and the route to success taken by Volkswage at Pikes Peak and Goodwood started only eight months prior to reaching the racing track. The success is seen by the VW board as being down to the innovative methods used during the test and development phase.

3D Printing

According to Dr Benjamin Ahrenholz, Head of Calculations/Simulations at Volkswagen Motorsport, aerodynamics experts tested several hundred different configurations in the wind tunnel for the chassis details, which couldn’t have been done without the speed and flexibility of 3D printing.

“We made about 2,000 individual parts for the wind tunnel model in the 3D printer, sometimes with several printers working at the same time,” he explains.

Ahrenholz went on to explain that with conventional manufacturing, such as with carbon fibre, the process would have taken several days or weeks per part, time that the engineers simply did not have.

The suite of 3D printers certainly had their work cut out for them as the spectrum of parts required ranged from a bracket just a few centimetres in size for a sensor to complex channels supplying batteries and brakes with cool air.
Once the scale model 3D printed components had been made for low load wind tunnel evaluation, the parts selected for the final build were then made of carbon-fibre composite or metal for the racing car.

Notwithstanding the soft material used in the 3D printers, some parts were nonetheless used in the racing car. These were exclusively small parts, the shape of which would have been very complicated to manufacture using other manufacturing methods, such as casting or laminating, and the dimensions of which did not have to adhere to extremely low tolerances.

Industry 4.0 in Wolfsburg

Race track records aren’t the only successes being celebrated at Volkswagen this year as the company has also just picked up a “Lean Production Award” for Industry 4.0 implementation amongst other achievements at its German Wolfsburg plant.

Home to the company’s headquarters, the Wolfsburg factory produces 3,500 cars per day, including the Golf, Tiguan and Touran. Since Wolfsburg started production in 1945, more than 45 million vehicles have rolled off the production lines. In the future, the site will consolidate production of the Golf family from the next generation onwards and the new Seat Tarraco will also be produced there from the end of 2018.

According to Volkswagen’s Board Member in charge of Production, Dr Andreas Tostmann, his staff is implementing the changes required for greater productivity and high quality with many initiatives and exemplary speed. “We need this approach more than ever before to safeguard the future of the plant,” he says.

Chairman of the award assessment Jury and MD of Agamus Consult GmbH, Dr Werner Geiger says that the consistent pursuit of high productivity and zero reworking contributed to the choice of Wolfsburg as winner of the award.

“The speed with which the team at the plant has introduced many excellent approaches over the past 24 months with a view to becoming fit through lean production is impressive. We are therefore very pleased to present the Automotive Lean Production Award 2018 in the OEM category to the Wolfsburg plant for this outstanding achievement,“ he says.

With its PQM strategy, Volkswagen’s main plant is focusing on productivity, quality and team performance. The objective is more and more efficient volume production which safeguards the plant and its future. With the 400 or so workshops to be held this year alone, managers and team members are improving processes within the production system, thus reducing the production cost per vehicle at the same time as consistently maintaining the highest possible quality standards.

Industry 4.0 implementation is also an important part of the future improvements at Wolfsburg and reflects the emphasis that is being placed on increasing connectivity, performance monitoring and intelligence edge devices within the context of an overall Industry 4.0 approach. With Bosch being the main driving force behind Industry 4.0, there is particularly strong uptake within the German automotive industry.

Autonomous Transport Robot

Škoda Auto is using the latest advances in fully autonomous transport at its Vrchlabí plant in the Czech Republic. With an ability to transport payloads of as much as 130kg, the compact robot only needs to be guided between the stations it serves only once in order to learn the route.

Once it has memorised the route, it can recognise changes to its surroundings autonomously using sophisticated, state-of-the-art technology that gives the robot its ability to navigate the environment.

Using sensors and laser scanners, it recognises vehicles and stationary obstacles as well as people crossing its path. The control system calculates the approach speed and detects if a collision is imminent. In this case, the robot stops by itself or takes evasive action.

The use of the autonomous robot is contributing to the continuous improvement of workplace safety at the Vrchlabí factory and is helping to minimise working risks for the site’s employees.

Jonathan Newell
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