At Audi the focus is on people – the customer and the employee. Digitization and intelligent solutions in production are making it possible to continually increase the brand’s level of quality. They also are reducing complexity, making production work easier and ensuring better ergonomics.
Hand-in-hand: humans and robots
In the A4*/A5*/Q5* assembly facility at the Audi plant in Ingolstadt, the future has arrived: Since January 2015, a robot – known in the plant as “PART4you” – has been helping out on Section 3 of the assembly line. Its assignment: To use a camera and an integrated suction cup gripper to take coolant expansion tanks from a deep materials box. Then the robot passes them to the employee – without a safety barrier, at the correct time, and in an ergonomically optimal position. The employee on the line retains control of every situation, because the robot adapts to the working pace of the employee. Thanks to PART4you, the employees no longer have to bend and reach down into the box of expansion tanks, which helps prevent back strain. The steel body of the robot is protected from shocks and impacts by a covering made of foam. Sensors integrated in the foam covering react immediately if the employee moves close to the robot or touches it. If necessary, the sensors shut off PART4you’s electric drive. PART4you fufils the relevant safety requirements for cooperating robot systems, so he has been issued the required certificate from the employers’ liability insurance association.
It is the first human-robot cooperation at the Volkswagen Group to be applied in final assembly. Since 2013, Audi employees in the A4 body shop in Ingolstadt have been working with the same type of robot, equipped with an adhesive nozzle instead of a suction cup – but with fixed timing and without the component-passing function. Both robots are already fully integrated in the line operation, and there are many more ideas for expanding the cooperation between workers and machines. In pilot testing at Audi’s Neckarsulm site, for instance, a robot is currently being tested to see if it can also precisely position heavy components, like a luggage compartment lid.
Smart and safe: the electronic vehicle job card
Paper job slips with detailed specifications for individual vehicles were the standard used in production for many years. At some point it became too bothersome to indicate on a piece of paper all the abbreviations and acronyms for countless models and equipment variants. This is why Audi gradually switched to a new technology in late 2011 – the electronic vehicle job card (called “eWBK” for short, from the German “elektronische Wagenbegleitkarte”), also known as electronic build document. Since then it is in use in nearly all assembly areas at Audi’s Ingolstadt plant.
On monitors at the workstations, the eWBK shows exactly the component the employee needs for every car. Photos, highlighting in color, and illustrations provide fast, clear orientation. In many instances the employee is even shown from which container he has to take the components – indicated by a signal light. The eWBK also automatically reminds employees if something needs to be tested or inspected.
The new technology makes the operational procedure easier and more reliable. So it is an important cornerstone for further improvement of processes and quality.
A second pair of “legs” made of CFRP: the chairless chair
Audi’s highest priority is the health of its employees. That’s why the company collaborated with a Swiss start-up enterprise to conceive a solution that greatly reduces bodily strain on the assembly line and boosts well-being in the workplace – the “chairless chair.”
The chairless chair is an exoskeleton worn on the back of the legs. The high-tech construction of carbon thus enables production employees to sit – without a physical chair. The employee fastens the chairless chair to the body, using belts at the hips, knees and ankles. Two leather-covered surfaces support the buttocks and thighs, and two struts made of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) adapt to the contours of the legs. They are jointed at knee height and can be hydraulically adjusted to the wearer’s body size and the desired sitting position. Body weight is transferred to the floor through these adjustable elements. The chairless chair weighs just 2.4 kilograms (5.3 lb).
The employee wears it during work like a second pair of legs that always support him when needed. The exoskeleton can thus improve posture during many activities and reduce strain on the legs. It also enables the employee to sit in an ergonomically sound position instead of standing. So chairs and stools, which are currently used at some assembly line sections as temporary aids, become unnecessary.
The first prototypes of the chairless chair are already in use at the Neckarsulm site, to be followed by the Audi plant in Ingolstadt.
The pilot project is being supported by an interdisciplinary team and is part of the field of activity under the heading of “workplace of the future,” in line with the company’s ergonomics strategy: With “We for us. Active into the future,” Audi is responding to current and future challenges resulting from the transformation of the working world.
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