Automation in remanufacturing today is in a very early phase. Around 95% of the production processes are manual. Only about 4% are semi-automatic and about 1% is already automated. Robots, with a few exceptions, are rare. I do not propose that remanufacturing will one day be fully automated but the proportion will grow year by year. The most difficult procedure to robotise will be disassembling. The digitisation of remanufacturing will progress but will not replace all the jobs because remanufacturing is not manufacturing new components.
The cost for implementing automated reman may be high but the values of the components to remanufacturing are also increasing all the time - making the pay-off more attractive. A reduction of labour costs (but also better ergonomics for workers) and improved quality are the main drivers. Consistent quality is a vital element of remanufacturing, especially to improve the acceptance of remanufactured (reused) products.
Automation is a guarantor of quality. Automation will decrease lead time through the factory and elevate production volumes. The progress of digital technologies will make the task to automate much easier. Over time robots will become less expensive, cameras for product recognition will become more powerful and cost-attractive, sensors for production processes will to the same extent become more powerful - and last but not least, artificial intelligence (AI) will enhance all the reman processes. It is only a matter of time - and be aware that it may progress faster than you believe, leaving the advantages to your competitors if you do not embrace it.
Investments in automation, or even in robotics, must pay off in the short or medium term. The costs are relatively high - not only for the equipment, but also for creating an infrastructure and integrating it into the production process. Teamwork between workers and robots is essential, and education is key. High volumes are the starting point of automation but with increasingly powerful digital support the volume may, in a few years, not be such a constraint. Software and AI will facilitate the process, though it will take a few more years. Innovative remanufacturers are prepared to embrace the challenge which is good news for the future elevation and development of remanufacturing.
Remanufacturers have concluded that the introduction of robots is best suited to cleaning and painting. Volumes are large since most components need to undergo these processes. The programming of the robots is, despite the variety of components, less difficult. Remanufacturers can reduce labour costs and use lower quantities of chemicals.
Many remanufacturing processes, but certainly not all, can be automated. A minimum batch size will often be required, but not always. Excellent examples are already available, mainly for the processes of painting and cleaning. A very innovative team at turbocharger remanufacturer BorgWarner has created a fully automated and self-monitoring cleaning machine which can be individually programmed to run correct cleaning cycles. Programs for predetermined specifications are available for the timing of each cycle, for the type of chemistry, for litres and temperature for each bath, just to mention a few. Once the conveyor is loaded baskets are transferred automatically into, through and out of the machine to the unloading station. This application is a perfect example of how automation can be introduced to a remanufacturing operation.
This is an edited extract from To Elevate Automotive Remanufacturing by Innovation and Automation, edited by Fernand Weiland. Co-authors are Francesco Maltoni, Thijs Jasink, Sebastian Groß, Thomas Bartscherer, Florian Schäfer, Wolfgang Gerke, Nigel Ramsden, Stefan Thäter and Mike Hague-Morgan. The book is available now and you can contact Fernand Weiland to get your copy.