GM’s robot production line has its head in the cloud

5 Apr 2017

Image: Praphan Jampala/Shutterstock

General Motors has 30,000 robots in its production line. After it hooked one-quarter up to the internet, improvements became obvious.

Automation has been creeping into our lives for centuries, surging through each industrial revolution. The latest quirk on the theme sees the automotive industry dominating in the shift towards robots.

So much so that the 30,000 robots belonging to General Motors (GM) are acting as a type of staging point, as their movement online coincides with a raft of production improvements at the largest US automaker.

Mark Franks, director of global automation, recently spoke of the 100 potential failures of its assembly robots, which were avoided by GM after analysing data sent to external servers in the cloud.

Connectivity is preventing assembly line interruptions and robot replacements that can take as long as eight hours, according to Bloomberg.

“If we can avoid a disruption in our manufacturing, we can save ourselves a significant amount of money,” Franks said. “It’s a pretty good payback.”

The International Federation of Robotics, according to Bloomberg, claims that auto companies continue to be the robotics industry’s largest customer.

“In 2016, automotive factories installed 17,600 robots compared with 5,100 for electronics manufacturers and 1,900 for metal producers,” reads the report.

By hooking some, or all, of these robots up to the internet, manufacturers such as GM can order parts in real time as stocks dwindle, reducing the inventory and its peripheral needs, such as storage. This is all money saved.

“The amount of technology coming at us in the next five years is probably more than we’ve seen in the last 50,” said Franks. He’s probably not wrong.

The push for a driverless future, for example, needs a dramatic influx of innovation in the coming years.

Nissan, BMW and Audi represent some of the more active, traditional automotive companies pumping huge resources into this field. They have been joined by Airbus, adding an aeronautical dimension with optimistic plans for ‘air taxis’, and Tesla, pioneering an electric future.

Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce behemoth, has also been a creative force in the past two years, acquiring stakes in some companies many expect to be powering the future of transport.

Then there are the tech giants Apple and Google, the most vocal proponents of autonomous vehicles and the duo most likely to be willing to pour endless amounts of money into innovations facing significantly longer lead-in times than traditionally encouraged in transport.

These vehicles will essentially be robots hooked up to the internet. So why can’t robots, hooked up to the internet, help to build them?

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic