ZEELAND, Mich.—YuMi the two-armed robot can be found on YouTube delighting viewers by folding paper airplanes, playing "Simon Says" with a technician, mixing drinks, and even cooking pancakes.
But now, YuMi is migrating from YouTube videos to the auto industry's factory floor.
At Gentex Corp., engineers are testing a YuMi to help make mirrors. The robot will load plastic parts into a plasma oven to remove impurities from the molding process, according to company spokesman Craig Piersma.
Gentex, which employs 4,000 in its Zeeland plant and is the industry's leading producer of electro-chromic mirrors, is counting heavily on automation to compete with rivals in Mexico, China and elsewhere.
Robots have been a common fixture in auto plants for decades, performing grungy and dangerous jobs. But YuMi, designed by ABB Robotics, represents a new wave of robotics hitting the industry. The new machines are collaborative robots—designed to work in close proximity to humans without a protective metal cage or plastic shield.
That new flexibility in how and where they can work in a manufacturing setting—coupled with lower costs and easier programming—is setting the stage for parts suppliers to embrace the technology. And such an industry shift could have long-term implications for the U.S. auto manufacturing sector's ability to generate job growth as it has in the past.
Gentex is relying on robots as it reshores production to the U.S.
In recent years, Gentex closed its two foreign plants in low-wage Mexico and China and consolidated all production into a single factory complex in western Michigan. The Zeeland plant now produces self-dimming mirrors, garage door openers and everything else in the Gentex product catalog for global markets.
Factory automation is what made it possible for Gentex to move production from overseas to the Midwest.
"It's a tricky product," says Steve Downing, Gentex Chief Financial Officer, as he inspects the company's 2-year-old assembly line that makes one of the industry's most advanced rearview mirrors. "Any scratches or smudges, or even the shipping, can damage these mirrors. Cleanliness is key."
This is the sort of business model the new president is pressing manufacturers to adopt. But Gentex designed its plan not for political reasons, but for purely competitive ones as its products become more complex. And for champions of the push to create U.S. automotive jobs, Gentex has sobering news: Making modern car parts in America today is going to take a whole lot of robots.
With prices starting at $20,000 or so, the new robots have become affordable for suppliers with limited capital budgets. Equally important, they are much easier to program for line duty than more expensive robots of old.
According to ABI Research, global sales of collaborative robots are expected to total 40,000 in 2020, up from an estimated 8,500 this year.
Two years ago, ABB Robotics began selling its twin-armed YuMi to automotive suppliers, electronics manufacturers, makers of medical equipment and other industrial customers.
YuMi is designed for final assembly of objects weighing 1 pound or less, says Gustavo Sepulveda, ABB's general manager of U.S. robotics. It can handle repetitive tasks that require a deft touch. It uses a camera to detect components for assembly, and it can pick parts out of a mixed bin.
The 84-pound robot can stop itself within milliseconds after it feels a nudge from a human employee.
"If you have very small components, it's really good at assembling electronic devices," Sepulveda said. "It can work side by side with a human worker."
Other robots can handle heavier loads. Fanuc Corp., North America's largest robot supplier, has designed a collaborative robot that can lift payloads weighing up to 77 pounds. General Motors Co.' assembly plant in Orion Township, Mich., is using Fanuc-built one-arm robots to lift 35-pound tires off a conveyor belt and stack them on a cart.
Audi's assembly plant in Ingolstadt, Germany, relies on robots to lift empty coolant expansion tanks out of a bin and hand them to workers for installation in the vehicle.
Fanuc is selling about 60 percent of its collaborative robots to the auto industry, says Rick Maxwell, Fanuc's director of engineering.
"We are getting a lot of interest from all sectors," Maxwell said.?
Suppliers are likely to find even more uses for collaborative robots as producers develop new mobile versions of them. Fanuc has run demos of a robot mounted to an automated cart that could be moved from station to station.
Robots also soon will be equipped with more sophisticated sensors. One feature might be a pressure-sensitive "skin" that tells the robot exactly where it was touched.
Both Maxwell and ABB's Sepulveda expect sales to grow rapidly as suppliers figure out more applications for the robots.
"Imagine all the things with small components that you assemble," Sepulveda said. "As time goes by, collaborative robots will be as common as industrial robots. It will be a huge market."