Production superheroes – modern robots help at every step

They’re literally everywhere. We have them in the home, in hospitals or in factories. Their world is immensely diverse, their history interesting and their abilities astounding. Get to know the Škoda robots.

15. 12. 2022

Robotics and artificial intelligence are terms that are more and more common, so it is surprising that humanity has not yet arrived at a single definition of what a robot actually is. “I think of industrial robots, which are my daily bread. Because the word robot is a bit like the word sweet – we all know what it is, but if each of us were to write our own definition, the definitions wouldn’t be exactly the same,” says Jan Čejka from Škoda’s welding and electrical equipment planning team, who will be Škoda Storyboard’s guide to the world of robotics.

Škoda’s Kvasiny plant uses a robot to collect starter batteries from pallets and move them onto the production line.

It is not much of an exaggeration to describe these machines as superheroes. They can work non-stop, they don’t get tired and they have superhuman abilities: they can easily handle loads as heavy as half a tonne. They are also far more precise than humans. They can make linear movements in a straight line with incomparably greater precision and certainty than the most skilled surgeon. Last but not least, robots are great mathematicians: in an instant they can recalculate all sorts of spatial coordinates, shift coordinate systems, adjust the trajectory of the arm and precisely grasp the required object.

Cyborg or android?

Androids are robots that look like people and are designed to help people. Cyborgs are living organisms whose body includes a robotic part, whether this replaces a standard body part or adds new components.

“I like to say that robotics is the king of engineering. It combines all the modern scientific and technical disciplines – mathematics, physics, programming, engineering and design, sensors, materials engineering or electrical engineering. Are you interested in engines? Do you program? In robotics, you will find pretty much everything that can be studied in engineering schools today. In addition, research results can be applied in this field, whether that is research in mathematics, artificial intelligence or new materials – all of which can be used in the design of arms, gearboxes or the development of lubricants,” Čejka says.

DSC5106-copy Jan Čejka
robotics expert

Welding without human intervention

More than 4,000 robots work at Škoda. Welding, handling and gluing are the most automated processes, accounting for around 85 per cent of robot activities. The remaining fifteen per cent of the technologies that robots control comprise activities such as clinching, flanging, brushing or laser soldering. 

“Robotics is more complex in the places where a new part is being added to the line and in the finishing area. That is therefore where we are trying to apply collaborative robots. Increasingly, we are also working with what are known as vision systems, which are gradually automating the input – the robot can select the right part from the pallet and grab it itself,” says the expert.

A transport robot takes care of supplying CNC lines.

It follows that robotisation makes the most sense for routine and, above all, physically demanding activities. The aim, of course, is not to put people out of work, but to make it easier. Humans are irreplaceable for a large part of the work: they make quick decisions, have fine and precise motor skills, and can think. And anyway, someone has to take care of the robots, keep them running, repair them, and program them.

Coined by a Czech writer

The first person to use the word “robot” was Czech author Karel Čapek in 1920 in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). These were “humanoid” robots, who look and behave like people, except that they lack emotions. The robots were supposed to work so that people could spend their time in more meaningful ways. The word “robot” is derived from the Czech word for feudal labour.

What kind of robots are to be found at Škoda?

1. Stationary robots

Stationary robots are mainly used in industry. Their arms operate only in a certain predefined space. And it is by the type of space that they are categorised: the constraints are determined by the robot’s design, axis arrangement, length and number of arms. Cartesian robots move in perpendicular axes and their working space is a cube or a block, while cylindrical robots cover an imaginary cylinder or sphere.

The stationary KUKA robot is most commonly found in welding shops.

SCARA (Selective Compliant Articulated Robot Arm)

This is a cylindrical robot that consists mainly of rotary axes. It is small, fast and precise, making it suitable for handling and assembling components. It can also make fine adjustments to the part’s alignment.

Articulated robots

The most common industrial robots are the angular or articulated ones. Six-axis industrial robots consist of two mechanical parts called the manipulator and the wrist: they allow the robot to not only reach out, but also to twist to the desired angle using the wrist. “Kuka robots are the most numerous in our welding shops, with over two and a half thousand of them. They are followed by robots from the Japanese manufacturer Fanuc, and sixty robots from the Swedish brand ABB have recently been deployed. We select suppliers according to set standards in cooperation with the Volkswagen Group. They must support our technologies, from handling to resistance or laser moulding. We then upload our own software libraries into the machines. No robot is single-purpose – each is programmed to handle all tasks,” explains Čejka.

A typical application for the six-axis angular industrial robot at Škoda is resistance welding of the bodywork. There are thousands of welding points on the body. Each welding point is executed by the robot with repeatable precision to within a tenth of a millimetre. In addition, the robots are equipped with a balancing function that allows them to adjust the position of the welding pliers relative to the metal sheet and thus compensate for any inaccuracies. 

2. Service robots

Service robots are non-industrial assistants that are not intended for production but to help a person in certain activities. In other words, they provide services to people and equipment – such as robotic vacuum cleaners.

Robotic vacuum cleaners are not only used in homes.

3. Wheeled robots 

These are not fixed in place and their job is to move freely on wheels or tracks. They differ mainly in terms of the number of wheels used and their arrangement - the aim is for the robot to be able to overcome various obstacles in its environment. The design of the wheels themselves is also important, for example the size and cladding. Since the robots move around, they have to have a navigation system. These robots can perform all sorts of tasks – like collecting samples on Mars. But they are commonly used in industry, for example in the form of AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles).

AGV carts automatically transport components to where they are needed, for example.

AGVs are the largest robotic assistant in Škoda logistics. They help transport parts from the warehouse to the production line. Unmanned forklift trucks can load a pallet of parts directly onto the line. The forklifts communicate wirelessly with the line control, because they need to receive a message that they can safely load the pallet.

4. Walking robots

These use legs and feet to move around. They often mimic the walking style of humans or animals, and are sometimes called hopping robots. These types of movement allow them to negotiate difficult terrain better. The biggest challenge for the designer is the robust and fast mathematical apparatus of the control system that can keep the robot balanced and synchronise all its limbs so the robot does not fall or stumble. Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot, for example, which can do parkour and flips, falls into this category.

Walking robot dog

Walking robots are not widely used in the industry, but even so you can also come across them at Škoda. As part of the digital factory project, various mobile platforms are being tested that could scan production equipment in order to synchronise a digital model with reality. For this purpose, the possibility of deploying a robotic dog or spider, for example, was tested in cooperation with the Czech Technical University in Prague.

Robot spider

5. Specialised robots

 “The last category of robots isn’t defined; for our purposes we can call them specialised. They include robots designed for some specific skill. Some can swim, fly or work in swarms, others are as small as atoms. These nano robots might one day be able to help eliminate cancer cells in human bodies, for example. Some robots can fight on battlefields, others help clean our homes,” Čejka says. Another interesting application is the exo-skeleton, a functional structure which can be worn by people to increase their strength, improve work ergonomics or even replace missing limbs.

Some industrial manufacturing makes use of drones these days.

“We can say that our robots work in a swarm in the welding shop. The robots communicate with each other and graciously give each other right of way if they are in danger of colliding. It could also happen that a robot flies over your head. Škoda has been testing autonomous drones in logistics. Machines and manipulators to improve work ergonomics are also common in assembly. Collaborative robots that share a workspace with a human and are not separated by any mechanical barrier could also fall into this category. Robots like this help us perform glueing or measure the dimensions of parts,” concludes Čejka.

At Škoda, robots working in “swarms” are mainly found in welding shops.

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