2022-03-16

Robotics and Automation: State-of-the-Art Production Methods in KION Plants

As an innovator in intralogistics and supply chains, the KION Group has been working with robotics and automation for some time already. These are important fields in production—not just for our customers, but for us as well. From Aschaffenburg in Germany and Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic, right the way across the globe to Jinan in China: More and more KION plants are using state-of-the-art robots and fully automated production facilities—not just because they offer maximum process reliability and precision, but also because they improve health and safety for employees.

If you visit Hall 2C at the Aschaffenburg plant of Linde Material Handling, a KION subsidiary, you will be treated to a rather special performance by “Thelma” and “Louise,” two gigantic shiny white handling robots, which have been hard at work in the automated frame welding system since 2019. They are constantly in motion, collecting, transporting, and depositing the bulky frames and overhead guards within the carefully partitioned production line in fluid movements. The purpose of their perfectly choreographed dance is to move the components along the line from station to station, so that their smaller “colleagues”—28 welding robots and 6 measuring robots—can complete their own stage of the process. All their human colleagues have to do is get the required parts and materials ready—the robots take care of everything else, as the flying sparks and high temperatures are no issue for them.

Maximum Welding Precision and Safety

The dance of the giants is perfectly timed: Every 14 minutes, a frame and overhead guard leave the system, fully welded and carefully checked. While quality control is carried out on a spot-check basis for welding work performed using conventional production methods, the measurement of the finished products is now an integral part of the fully automated process. Every single hole and welded seam is scanned by the measuring robots; the smallest deviation is detected immediately.

“The use of robotics is not only beneficial in terms of process reliability and quality—it also improves health and safety in the plant,” explains Jürgen von Derschau, Head of Global Industrial Engineering and Operational Excellence at KION ITS EMEA. “The hard, physically demanding welding work is performed by machines. This is now the standard not just in Aschaffenburg, but at all KION plants across Europe.”

What’s special about the system in Aschaffenburg, though, is that it is not just the individual welding steps that are fully automated, but all the handling in between as well. “That makes the automated frame welding system here truly ground-breaking and unique in the production of industrial trucks,” says von Derschau. But it will not remain unique, at least not in the KION world. A similarly interlinked system is currently being built at the French KION plant in Châtellerault. This system will complete the entire welding process for the chassis used in the electrical lift trucks produced at that plant.

Fully Automated Production Line for Drive Axles

Around 500 kilometers to the east in the Czech Republic, the fully automated production line has been a fixture at the KION plant near the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Český Krumlov for a long time now. “Český Krumlov is now one of our flagship sites when it comes to robotics and automation,” says von Derschau with a hint of pride. Here, intelligent machines play an important role in many of the processes involved in the production of steering and drive axles for the trucks of the KION Group brands.

The CNC milling machines, for example, which produce the gear shafts, housings, and other subassemblies for the transmission production process are supported by robots—and have been for years. After the highly precise milling has been completed, a robot arm collects the parts and handles various process steps (such as deburring and cleaning the parts) before the parts are conveyed on to the transmission production stage, which is also automated.

The production line for steering and drive axles is at the heart of the ultra-modern plant. Three handling robots work in collaboration in a cell here. The employees simply have to place the subassemblies produced in the CNC milling machine onto pallets ready for them, and the never-tiring robot arms work in perfect harmony to completely assemble the transmission variants. The robots support the various machines involved in the assembly process and handle all of the process steps—right through to the depositing of the finished transmission on a pallet at the end of the robot cell, where it is then ready to be collected for the final processing stage: painting.

Perfect Processes in the Paint Shop

Just like welding, painting is another activity that requires a lot of protective measures for employees. To improve occupational health and safety in this area and make the processes involved more efficient, the entire painting and coating process has been transformed into an automated line at the Český Krumlov plant. The steering and drive axles mentioned earlier are painted entirely by robot hands. Two robot arms protected by layers of special fabric work together in a cell to apply the paint perfectly—without any human input. It is not just in Český Krumlov that the painting process is now fully automated: The German Aschaffenburg plant and the KION plant in Jinan, China, have also implemented automated painting processes, which not only reduces throughput times but also significantly improves working conditions.

In Aschaffenburg, more than 100,000 mast frames are powder-coated each year by two robots in a cell and then transported through a furnace by automated overhead conveyors. Under the intense heat, the powder coating hardens and gives the relevant component long-lasting protection against corrosion once it has been through the (also automated) cooling phase. This environmentally friendly alternative to conventional painting also provides better quality, and is therefore now the standard for KION products where possible.

“Cleaning Robots” in the Foundry

Weilbach in the German region of Odenwald is home to another KION site, which has a long history and has been processing metal for some 200 years. The counterweights that go on to be installed in Linde Material Handling trucks are produced here in red-hot cupola furnaces that burn at temperatures exceeding 1000°C. Once the counterweights are removed from the mold after casting, the cast blocks have to be ground and freed from what is known as “flash.” This tedious process used to be completed by hand using an angle grinder, but is now performed by “cleaning robots” at the plant in Weilbach. The human employees now just have to take care of the finishing touches—the robots quite literally do the dirty work.

Automated Mast Profile Handling and Mast Welding

The handling of extremely heavy, unwieldy parts like mast profiles has also been automated at the Eastern European KION plants in Stříbro (Czech Republic) and Kołbaskowo (Poland), as well as at the Chinese site in Jinan, which opened in 2021. The several meters long metal profiles, which can only be moved using cranes, are transported into storage automatically following delivery. From this moment on, every single step is performed automatically: The profile bars are removed from storage on an order-specific basis, sandblasted, and placed on conveyor belts to be taken through a measuring and straightening system, and a CNC machine. This ensures that there are no accidents as the parts are conveyed through to the welding stage, where they arrive perfectly processed and ready for the next step.

A robot is also used at the Italian KION plant in Luzzara to weld the masts for the warehouse trucks. Two colleagues monitor the automated welding system and make the adjustments required for the different mast variants. Besides making working life easier for employees and improving efficiency, using robots in this way also makes a difference to quality: The welded seams produced in the automated system are cleaner and neater than could ever be achieved by hand.

Automated Guided Vehicles Instead of Conveyor Belts

Once all the modules and components required to assemble the forklift trucks are ready, KION hands over to its company “robots” to complete the final assembly stage at almost all sites: Automated guided vehicles (AGV) are used in Aschaffenburg, Hamburg, Châtellerault, Luzzara, Český Krumlov, and Kołbaskowo to transport the trucks being assembled along the assembly line. “In principle, our system works like a conveyor belt, but it is much more flexible and elegant,” explains von Derschau. The truck frame is placed on the automated guided vehicle and conveyed step by step through final assembly in an automatically controlled process. The order-specific material required for assembly is sometimes simply carried on a trolley behind the automated guided vehicle.

These are just a few examples of how KION is pushing ahead with automation in its own production processes—not as an end in itself, but always to the greatest possible benefit of all involved: “We use robotics in a targeted manner wherever we are able to generate tangible benefits for our employees, for our customers, and for us as a company,” says von Derschau. “As a result, we make work much easier and safer for our employees, deliver maximum precision in production and the highest product quality for our customers, and improve efficiency and process reliability for the KION Group.” So not only are Thelma, Louise and all the other robots extremely intelligent tools, they also genuinely enrich the lives of their human colleagues.

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