GM Launches Flexible Tooling for Robotic Welding

As part of its drive to boost manufacturing flexibility and performance, General Motors Corp. is phasing in a new flexible tooling system for robotic automotive production lines.

The system, known as C-Flex, was developed originally by GM over a period of several years, and is now being provided to the automaker by Fanuc Robotics (www.fanucrobotics.com), Rochester Hills, Mich., under terms of an exclusive, multi-year agreement.

GM sees the C-Flex system as an important part of its future manufacturing strategy, says James W. Wells, a senior staff research engineer, manufacturing systems, at the General Motors R&D Center, in Warren, Mich. Wells provided a glimpse of the technology during a presentation at the Robots 2004 conference, June 9-10, in Ypsilanti, Mich. “We think this is strategic, so we’ve been very quiet about it over the past four years. We’re just now starting to talk it up a little bit,” Wells told attendees at the conference, sponsored by the Robotic Industries Association (www.roboticsonline.com), Ann Arbor, Mich.

C-Flex is a servo-driven, programmable tooling system that can adjust to the contours and size of various automotive models and body components moving down a production line. As such, it can eliminate the need for model-specific tooling traditionally used for automotive applications such as robotic welding. “Instead of fixed tooling, you have servo tooling do your fixturing, so that within a certain envelope, you can allow that tooling to move around to accommodate different products,” Wells explained.

Big savings

The C-Flex system enables multiple body panels—such as floor pans, deck lids, hoods, doors and engine compartments—to be welded with the same set of programmable tools and robots. By improving GM’s ability to build different vehicles on the same assembly line, the C-Flex technology can save both money and manufacturing floor space. Indeed, according to a recent GM press release, C-Flex, along with other manufacturing improvements, will reduce GM’s cost of introducing new products into a body shop by about $100 million, while saving up to 150,000 square feet in body shop floor space.

The C-Flex technology has been deployed in pilot applications in various locations, said Wells. But at GM’s Lansing Grand River plant, the technology is now being used in production on three models of GM’s Cadillac—the high horsepower CTS-V, the SRX sport wagon and the STS, a 2005 model year replacement for the Cadillac Seville. All three vehicles have slightly differing sizes and dimensions. “The goal was to use our flexible tooling systems to run all three of these products down the same line,” Wells explained, so that depending on market acceptance, production volumes on each vehicle can be more easily adjusted. “If one model is hot and one’s not, then we can run more of one and less of the other.”

During a question and answer session following the Robots conference presentation, Wells confirmed that the C-Flex tooling systems are more expensive than traditional fixed tooling. But the savings due to the C-Flex system’s flexibility should make up that difference relatively quickly, he said. GM developed the C-Flex system internally in a “skunkworks” facility, Wells said, and it is not commercially available to others. GM currently has an exclusive agreement with Fanuc Robotics to supply C-Flex technology, he said.

Wes Iversen

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