A faster assembly line


Royal Philips Electronics began making the first electric shavers in 1939 and set up the factory here in Drachten in 1950. But Mr. Visser, the engineer who manages the asembly, takes pride in the sophistication of th lastest shavers. The sell for as much as $350 and, he says, are more complex to make than smartphones.

The assembly line here is made up of dozens of glass cages housing robots made by Adept Technoloy that snake around the factory floor for more than 100 yards. Video cameras atop the cagtes guide the robot arms almost unerringly to pick up the parts they assemble. The arms bend wires with millimetric accuracy, set toothpick-thin spindles in tiny holes, grab minuature plastic gears and set them in housings, and snap pieces of plastic into place. The next generation of robots for manufacturing will be more flexible and easier to train. Witness the facotry of Tesla Motors, which recently began manufacturing the Tesla S, a luxury sedan, in Fremont, Calif., on the edge of the silicon Valley. More than half of the buidling is shuttered, called the dark side. it still houses a dingy, unused Toyota Corolla assembly line on which an army of wokers once turned out half a million car annually. The Telsa assembly line is a stark constrast, brilliantly lighted. Its fastmoving robots, bring Telsa red, each has a singlearm with multiple joints. Most of them are imposing, 8 to 10 feet tall, giving them a slightly menacing “Terminator” qualtiy. But the arms seem eerily human when they reach over to a stand and change their “hand” to perform a different task. While the many robots in auto factories typically perfom only one function, in the new Telsa factory a robot might do up to four: welding, riveting, bonding and installinga component. As many as eight robots perform a ballet around each vehicle as it stops at each station along the line for just five minutes. Ultimately as may as 83 cars a day—roughly 20,000 are planned for the first year—will be produced at the factory. When the company adds a sprot utility vehicle next year, it will be built on the same assembly line, once the robots are reprogrammed. Telsa’s factory is tiny but represents a signifcant bet on flexible robots, one that could be a modle for the industry. And others are alreay thinking bigger. Hyundai and Beijing Motors recently completed a mmaoth factory outside Beijing that can produce a million vehicles a year using more robots and fewer people tha the big factories of their competitors and with the same flexibility as Tesla’s, said Paul Chau, an American venture capitalist at WI Harper who toured the plant in June.


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