Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Virtual reality: Robotic simulation software helps build advanced assembly systems for an Ontario manufacturer

June 18, 2014
By Vanessa Chris

In the automotive industry, cutting lead times — and costs — is the secret to staying ahead of the competition. Wasting time is just not an option, especially when it comes to building new assembly systems. Automotive manufacturers need to know that the system they install on the plant floor is going to work immediately, and the robots are going to be programmed perfectly to meet their specifications.

With the average Tier automotive assembly system consisting of approximately 90 robots, this is no small feat. Gone are the days when robot specialists would physically install and program a two- or three-robot cell on the plant floor. Today, to win the business of the Tier 1, 2 and 3 suppliers, programming must first happen in the virtual world.

Establishing a virtual presence
Centerline Limited, a Windsor, Ont.-based company that specializes in advanced automation processes and technologies, including the manufacture of advanced assembly systems, recognized the importance of robotic simulation early on. The company launched an entire department devoted to digital manufacturing and robotic simulation in 2007. Back then, Centerline worked on much smaller cells, usually using one brand of robot — and its associated branded software — at a time.

In 2008, however, after the economic collapse that devastated the global economy and the automotive industry in particular, automotive suppliers started to look for more efficient ways to run their businesses. One way was by building more efficient, complex assembly systems by reconfiguring robots they already owned. Suddenly, Centerline was faced with the challenge of finding robotic simulation software that would allow them to integrate different brands of robots into single assembly systems.


“Basically, we had all these different individual software programs with the smaller software cells,” says Luciano Mancini, robotic simulation specialist at Centerline. “When the simulation department started to expand, we needed more flexibility with the software.”

Both Mancini and J-P Girard, Centerline’s robotic simulation leader, had experience with Dassault’s Delmia brand of robotic solutions, and felt it would be a good fit for their needs. So in 2011, after getting a few different quotes and learning about the different options available, they gravitated towards the Delmia V5. Not only did they like it, but it was seamlessly compatible with Dassault’s Catia 3D CAD design software, and easy to translate from other CAD programs used by Centerline’s design department. Girard and Mancini also looked forward to the next version, V6, which they were told would be ready for their offline programming needs in a couple of years.

That day came in 2013 when, as part of Centerline’s global expansion, the company decided to upgrade its PLM system, amalgamating all departments under one platform. For the robotic simulation department to be able to communicate with the design department, it was going to have to upgrade its Delmia software to integrate with the new PLM system. With Delmia V6 ready to go, Centerline became one of the first companies to implement the new version.

Night and day
Right from the beginning, Mancini and Girard noticed a significant difference with the revamped Delmia V6. Not only did it feature an improved user interface and a database that contained all the files in one place, without the risk of having them lost or corrupted, but it simplified tasks that were previously time-consuming and complex — kinematics being one of them.

“Sometimes the designer may need us to apply kinematics to test, say, a new welder or servo gun, to see if it will be able to move in such a way on the floor,” says Mancini. “With the V6, it’s very easy to do. You could still do it in the older software, but there were less capabilities and it was more complicated. There’s more functionality in the V6.”

They also noticed a significant improvement when simulating arc welding.

“Robotic arc welding is kind of an art. It takes a lot of skill to understand how a robot is supposed to be able to arc weld,” says Mancini.

The V6 allows users to graphically view and properly configure the different weld parameters — the torch, push/pull angle and weld angles, for example — providing visual verification that the robot will perform a good weld to the required specifications.

“A lot of the time, we’re talking to people who aren’t welders,” says Mancini. “These simulations help us teach people, and show them where their parameters and tolerances are.”

The Delmia V6 offline programming capabilities have also saved Centerline a lot of time — mainly because of how the software approaches custom instructions. Previously, after program adjustments were sent from the plant floor, the simulation department would spend hours going through and deleting all the custom instructions that weren’t supported by Delmia. Now, with V6, more robot-specific instructions are supported, and those that are not supported are still uploaded into the software but are treated as “comments” automatically.

“Say you have to move your robot two feet. Now, we can upload the program, move the robot two feet, redownload the program, and everything is as it should be,” says Mancini. “We don’t have to touch anything on the programming side. It’s just another major benefit to the V6.”

Investing time to save time
Because of the significant advancements of the V6, its implementation has come with a learning curve. It took a couple of months to fully get up to speed, but the Delmia research and development team was there to provide assistance throughout the entire process.

“As one of the first integrators to go full production into V6 2013, we had the benefit of a close relationship with Delmia R&D,” says Mancini. “The support we’ve had has been phenomenal. It’s amazing to offer our suggestions to R&D and see those suggestions being implemented. It’s saved us quite a bit of time.”

Centerline plans to upgrade to Delmia V6 2014x in the near future, and have it fully implemented by the fall of this year. Despite the learning curve, Centerline is confident the upgrade is worth it. It’s projecting a 10 to 15 per cent productivity gain once the implementation is complete, and the company is already seeing improvements in time savings.

“Building a spot welding gun in V5, with all the kinematics required, would probably have taken us half an hour,” says Mancini. “In V6, I can probably finish it in 10 minutes.”

Similarly, Mancini is confident that the new graphical interface, and the arc welding changes, will prevent issues from occurring on the plant floor. And the V6 also allows them to program a machine before it’s built, so the client simply has to download a program to get a robot up and running.

“We’re taking a lot of guesswork out of automated assemblies,” says Mancini. “Now our clients can just flip a switch and they have the peace of mind knowing their design will work. This is cutting lead times significantly.”

Vanessa Chris is a freelance writer based in Guelph, Ont.

This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.

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