International engineering giant ABB extended its robotics division to Mexico in 1996 to serve the automotive industry that sprung up there with the passage of NAFTA. With thousands of its robots operating in the country today, Peter Krupa reports on how ABB Mexico continues to supply its solid customers in the auto industry, while seeking out new markets with consumer goods manufacturers.
They work long hours with no breaks. One works three shifts in a row standing in a single position, bending and lifting and stacking boxes on a pallet, one after another, until the pallet is full. Another works lightning-fast, snatching consumer products off a conveyer belt and packing them in boxes. Three more work all day, 365 days a year, hunched over next to the skeletons of cars on an automotive assembly line, arc welding the same line over and over and over again.
Intense labor? Maybe. But give them a steady flow of electricity and a check up every few months and these particular machines don’t seem to mind. They are robots built by ABB, one of the world’s leaders in industrial robot design, production, and installation. A truly global company with divisions located all over the world, ABB was the first engineering company to reach the milestone of installing 100,000 robots in factories all over the globe. Today it installs thousands of robots annually, worldwide, with its robotics division selling around $1.5 billion. The robotics division opened its doors in ABB Mexico in 1996, right after NAFTA went into effect. At the moment, its robots mostly work in the automotive industry, but ABB Mexico is seeing expansion into the consumer goods manufacturing sector.
Bringing robots to Mexico
With a group of 70 employees, the robotics division of ABB Mexico has installed around 2,000 robots in the country over the last 10 years, said robotics manager Gustavo Sepulveda. Most of its clients are in the automotive industry, including car manufacturers – Chrysler, Ford, GM, Nissan – as well as tier one part manufacturers such as Nemak, Benteler, Metalsa and Hella.
ABB Mexico offers all 25 standard robot models in the ABB catalogue. Most are arm-like, with six axis. They come in a variety of different ranges and sizes, from the room-filling monsters that can handle half a ton of materials, to the more slender models with a greater range of motion designed for spraying or precision grinding. One different model, the IRB 340, lowers its contact node from above production lines on three spindly legs, spider-like. Its function is to rapidly sort or assemble whatever items happen to be passing beneath it on the conveyor belt.
The uses of the robots depend on how they’re “dressed:” one robot can serve a variety of different purposes. “It can be the same robot, but if I put a gripper, it’s going to be for grabbing material,” Sepulveda said. “If I put a welding gun, it’s going to be for spot welding.” There are hundreds of different ways to dress ABB robots, and ABB Mexico works closely with its clients to determine exactly what they need and exactly what will fill that need. Once the robots are shipped in from ABB factories in Sweden, Norway, and China, ABB Mexico takes over with the integration.
But why robots? Don’t manufacturers move their operations to Mexico because labor is cheap? And wouldn’t the installation of robots defeat that purpose? Not exactly. The real advantage of robots is that they raise production and quality, while providing a safer work environment for their human operators.
For example, a robot working in a foundry wouldn’t have to worry about extreme heat or the laborious safety precautions that have to be taken when humans are doing the job. In addition to resisting heat, robots can move heavy loads quickly and accurately, something humans couldn’t do on such an extended basis without increasing the chance of injury. In the automotive industry in Mexico, where many of ABB’s robots are welding, robots
operate in highly accurate jobs where humans would have difficulty to match.
Faster, better, stronger
As robot technology has evolved and advanced, however, they’ve begun to present more reasons for their use than just safety. Those same automotive plants that use robot painters for safety reasons also use them because they increase quality and productivity. Similarly, those factories use robots for welding, grinding, and lifting heavy loads, even though a human being (or perhaps a human being with a forklift) could do the job quite safely.
That’s because in addition to safety, ABB robots provide a greater degree of dependability and precision. When programmed and operated correctly, an ABB robot can do the same weld thousands of times in a row without the slightest quality variation.
Turning welders into robot operators
“The main function of our product is to raise the quality of the product and lower the risk for operators,” said Sepulveda. That’s the key: ABB robots still require operators, and often they are the same workers that were doing the robot’s job before.
Take welding, for example. Although a robot can do a certain weld with precision and an extremely high rate of repetition, it still requires an operator who knows how to weld and can set how fast the wire should come out, the ampage and voltage of the power source, and the direction of the weld. “If this process is done with a robot, the robot doesn’t know all that,” Sepulveda said. “We need a person who understands the welding process so that he can instruct the robot how it should be done.”
Not just for the auto industry
The robotics business involves much more than just manufacturing and sales, and this is where ABB stands apart from its competitors. After the sale, ABB can take charge of both setting the robots up and training the employees in their operation. “We provide robots, but we’re also integrators,” Sepulveda explained. “The advantage with ABB is that we integrate them, and we’re responsible for the whole project.” And the involvement doesn’t have to stop there: ABB Mexico can also maintain the robots, if their owners so request.
Though the majority of ABB robots in Mexico are operating in automotive industry factories, Sepulveda said he expects a certain amount of growth from the consumer goods manufacturing sector. There are three main uses for ABB robots in that area: picking, packing, and palletizing. “Picking” would be the job of sorting multiple small items as, for example, they travel down a conveyer belt. “Packing” refers to the process of putting those small items in a larger package, and “palletizing” is the act of stacking those larger packages on pallets.
The robotics market in Mexico will continue to grow, and new applications will continue to be developed, as ABB
Mexico has proved for over 10 years. ABB together with its global organization is prepared to work with its customers in order to help them increase the productivity, quality and safety of their operations.