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Energising automotive production lines for the electric vehicle age

Neil Ballinger discusses the looming challenges that face automotive and adjacent industries

There is one car for every five people on Earth, but the clock is ticking on petrol and diesel vehicles as the electric vehicle (EV) makes headway into the market. This means an estimated 1.4 billion cars will soon be obsolete, causing disruption to many of the accompanying industries. 

Here The UK automotive industry is a valuable asset. In 2019, the sector turned over £82bn and added £18.6bn in value to the UK economy. 

However, considering the UK Government’s recent pledge to ban the sale of fuelled and hybrid vehicles from 2035 onwards, it’s clear that dramatic changes to the industry are fast approaching.

The automotive industry needs to switch production over to the EV at a rate of over five billion pounds per year if it’s to meet the 2035 deadline. That’s a serious challenge, but one that the automotive industry is particularly well equipped to overcome.

The EV market is currently in flux, and likely will be for a few years to come as international conglomerates battle each other for market supremacy. EV industries are still finding their feet in stark contrast with traditional vehicle industries which have had over a century to settle on standards and regulations.

The consequence of this is that each EV original equipment manufacturer (OEM) has its own internally developed standards. The effect of this is that the technology integral to ostensibly similar EVs, the VW ID.3 and the Tesla Model 3 for instance, can differ significantly.

There is one common denominator, however. While the drive trains, motors and transmissions might differ by manufacturer and between vehicles, inside the battery pack of almost every modern EV is the humble lithium ion (Li-ion) cell.

Power is money

The battery pack is currently the lynchpin of EVs, and this is unlikely to change while consumers are looking for long ranges, ease of charging and a long service life. The result of this is that, because the batteries are so important and expensive, circularising this economy is crucial.

When EV battery packs reach the end of their working lives, they are ideally recycled. Currently, many OEMs perform recycling internally, retiring spent EV packs to battery farms and other places, but as the market matures, third party businesses and organisations will inevitably get involved. In that context, with multiple battery packs in each EV, recycling is a monumental task that is only going to intensify.

A major chokepoint in battery recycling is the bin-picking stage, where individual packs are moved from large transport and storage bins onto the line conveyor.

On a production line, where the product is uniform and predictable, these picking steps are invariably performed by automated robotics. A system that can reliably pick loosely scattered packs, from a variety of OEMs, with their different shapes and sizes, from a bin, is a different proposition entirely.

Modern automated picking systems, such as the Fanuc 3D Area Sensor and handling robots make this task possible. Fanuc’s 3D Area Sensor first scans the input bin, then the part manager decides on the fastest part to pick next, and then the actuation commands are communicated to the handling robot.

These systems are ideal for sorting and handling EV packs. The sensor and handling robot combination can easily identify and pick damaged and mishappen packs in poorly lit conditions entirely automatically, and as fast as possible.

Because the EV market is highly focussed on the batteries, the automotive market is bound to the same path. The ability to quickly handle EV battery packs, and the cells therein, is key to a high-throughput EV affiliated production line.

This will likely be a defining difference between successful and unsuccessful, high and low throughput businesses as those 1.4 billion internal combustion cars quickly make way for the EV

Neil Ballinger’s head of EMEA sales at obsolete parts specialists EU Automation.

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