Tiny robots with pincer-like claws are helping Ford increase plant flexibility, says Jim Tetreault, vice president of North American manufacturing.

Developed in conjunction with supplier FANUC Robotics, the diminutive robots are being put into action at the auto maker’s recently retooled Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, MI, which is gearing up to build the all-new ’12 Focus C-car.

The robots hold side body panels in place during the welding process and can accommodate vehicles ranging in size from the Fiesta B-car to the Expedition fullsize SUV.

Tetreault describes the robots as being the “shape of a small pizza, 4-5 ins. (10-12 cm) thick with lobster-like clampers on the end.”

Prior to the installation, welding arms were the only flexible tooling in the body shop, and only one model could be accommodated at a time in a “tool tray,” Tetreault says.

Each tool tray is designed specifically for an individual model and has clamps and locators attached to it. In plants that still use the technology, such as Ford’s Chicago facility, the trays have to be changed frequently in order to switch production from one model to another.

“In Chicago, the body sides for the Explorer, Taurus and MKS, are all assembled on separate tool trays as they travel throughout body shop,” he says. “So if we want to build 70 Explorers, 20 Tauruses and 10 Lincolns, we have to switch all the tool trays around.

“And they take up space, need to be maintained, are very expensive and nowhere near as flexible,” Tetreault says.

The theory behind the pincer robots sprang from the minds of Tetreault and Bruce Hettle, Ford’s engineering director for Vehicle Operations Manufacturing, during a benchmarking trip to China and Japan.

“We were sitting in a hotel in Shanghai one night and thinking about greater flexibility,” he says. “We had welding flexible locators, but we needed flexible clamping. So we sketched out some things and talked it over and said, ‘We need to do this and figure out how to invent it.’”

It took a couple of years to develop the robots with FANUC. There are now 100 of them at the Wayne plant.

Ford has 5-year exclusivity on the technology before FANUC can offer it to other customers.

The auto maker will install the robots next at its Louisville, KY, assembly plant, where they’ll be used for more parts than just body sides, Tetreault says. Louisville is undergoing retooling to build the next-generation Escape cross/utility vehicle.

“Manufacturing flexibility is a key to competiveness, and we are continually exploring ways to raise the bar in this critical area of business,” Tetreault says. “Louisville, which has been building Explorers since 1991, is going to be completely brand new, so we have a clean sheet of paper and can do this level of flexibility.”

Other plants will follow as they are retooled for new products.

bpope@wardsauto.com