Using software to streamline production

How smarter quality inspection is creating the flexible factories of the future by Nicolas Lauchaud-Bandres, director automated solutions, Hexagon’s Manufacturing Intelligence division.

Flexibility and adaptability are the defining features of today’s most successful manufacturers, yet this is no mean feat. Smart manufacturing barriers – from legacy technology to rigid, siloed production processes – can hinder agility in companies large and small – making adapting to anything from new regulations to new market opportunities a far more difficult job.

Upheavals such as the automotive pivot to electric vehicles clearly demonstrate the danger presented by inflexible manufacturing processes. Today an assembly line is building an Internal Combustion Engine (ICE), but tomorrow it could be a hybrid of Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV) on the same line. Down the road, that OEM’s supplier is producing turbochargers, but can it create motor stators for tomorrow’s electric vehicles?

Software innovations are resulting in powerful solutions that can support manufacturers with bridging the gap between existing infrastructure and the factories of the future. At Hexagon, we’re working with customers to address these challenges and enable flexibility by design in the manufacturing process – particularly in the historic bottleneck of metrology.

In recent years, we had invested in robotic inspection systems that can be deployed in quality control or inline. They combine the articulated positioning of robotic arms and positioning tables with laser trackers and measurement devices to automate large part measurement. But it’s software that has unlocked the flexibility of inspection cells.

Thanks to software, you can now deploy a system that will inspect a part, and a few minutes later inspect a new part with different tolerances or geometry, and all without changing any fixtures or a line stop. As volume manufacturing diverges from the Henry Ford era, automotive manufacturers may need to adjust production plans to suit new of multiple vehicle architectures or models.

Unlocking inspection flexibility

We collaborated with Škoda Auto to reduce the time required to program robotic inspection from several days to just four hours using a new breed of robotic programming and control software. The solution – HxGN Robotic Automation – unlocks flexibility by planning the metrology and robotic positioning in a single environment based on a digital twin of the equipment capabilities.

This opens the doors to Industry 4.0 by autonomously designing optimal inspection routines for new vehicle components such as doors – a task that typically requires a significant amount of attention from both a metrology and robotics professional – in a single step.

The software is being used by Škoda Auto to deploy quality inspection cells faster to the production line, so they can be ready and waiting to gather vital quality and production data as soon as a new vehicle goes into production.

That same approach is highly attractive throughout large and specialist large part suppliers, where the ability to program both reliable metrology processes and the robotic positioning in one software environment more akin to Computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software makes the flexible and automated smart manufacturing technology accessible to more companies that need it.

Cost-effective automation

The implementation of robotic automation systems and the skills to programme them can present a major barrier to broader quality automation. Flexible quality inspection enables people responsible for quality to plan and program effective metrology and the robotics that automate it in a digital reality before it is deployed to the real world. And without robot programming experts for day to day use, so you can maximise return on investment when it comes to automation.

Hexagon is also working with manufacturers such as US aerospace supplier Alloy Specialties to automate its quality processes in a way that doesn’t require a substantial one-off investment. Alloy Specialties automated its existing coordinate measuring machine (CMM) part loading with our TEMPO automation system, which has contributed to 50% faster quality inspection processes.

This, in turn, is enabling the company to reduce costs and meet increased demand. Making small incremental investments in automating quality processes, and unlocking new levels of flexibility, can help manufacturers address immediate challenges and prepare for broader transformation by freeing up skilled professionals, enabling them to take on more work while keeping staff costs down.

With automated systems in place, it is a relatively simple step to add automatic part recognition or to scan barcodes so that an automated quality inspection such as this knows what to inspect as it’s loaded. These sort of systems require less setup and are less demanding of the skilled engineers at a site, who can spend that time doing more valuable things while getting more reliable results.

Non-specialists can be involved in adapting existing workflows to include fast and accurate autonomous inspection. And once the parts are loaded, the system will perform CMM inspection routines throughout the night while staff take a hard-earned rest.

Universal crunch-points in manufacturing lines and machine shops, such as quality inspection, offer opportunities to innovate. Finding ways to leapfrog the cultural and structural barriers holding teams back, free up skilled engineers, and increase productivity, are key for ensuring every step of the production process supports an agile and flexible factory of the future.

Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence

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