Back in 1961, General Motors made the bold step of introducing the first modern industrial robot into its automobile factory, setting a precedent for car makers globally.

The giant arm called Unimate took on dangerous tasks like pouring liquid metal, and today robots and machines continue to transform how factories work.

According to the International Federation of Robotics, by 2019 more than 1.4 million new industrial robots will be installed in factories around the world.

One of the biggest concerns is about technology is its impact on jobs but many are designed to be assistive or still require some human operation.

We recently visited Audi’s headquarters in southern Germany to find out how it plans to revolutionise car making within its smart factory.

3D printed metal

Audi 3D printing

3D printing has largely been focused on plastic (as well as food) but Audi has recently introduced its very own 3D printing center.

The company has an aluminium and steel printer which uses a laser melting method. This works by processing metal powder into complex steel and aluminium parts.

It’s already being used to make parts for series-production tools and be used to print car components for small models in the future.

See how it works in the video below:

 

Driverless transport systems

Audi AGV

AGVs (automated guided vehicles) are nothing new but they are evolving. Wired and guide taped solutions are quickly being replaced by laser-based solutions.

Audi has developed one such system known as ‘Paula’, which comes with laser scanners to help with orientation and detects surroundings, so that it never crashes into workers. There’s also another scanner on the front which points upwards to recognise any objects hanging from the ceiling.

Paula follows a defined route set on a navigation system but also picks up on any obstacles, intelligently working its way around them.

5 prototypes in currently being tested, which can supply goods from the warehouse to the assembly line freely and autonomously.

But that’s not the only driverless technology being developed. A driverless floor conveyor is coming too, and uses lasers in a similar way.

[Read more: Autonomous cars: How I turned from self-driving sceptic to driverless devotee]

Flexible screw points

Flexible Screw Points

Screwing parts underneath cars can be a particularly back-breaking task for workers, so Audi came up with a new device which is still operated by personnel but without having work from above all the time.

LBRinline is rolled under models by workers, who then press a button to activate the screwing process once it’s in line. Not only is it more comfortable, but it’s quicker as the frame can be loaded with as many as 14 screws.

Flexible gripping

Audi Flexible Gripping

While many robots can grip objects already, many are limited in the variety and shape they are able to carry.

The FlexShapeGripper, made by a company called Festo, uses an elastic cap, deformed under the influence of compressed air and spring tension to wrap around an object.

This could be used to pass objects to employees or workpiece carrier.

[Read more: Man vs machine: 9 human jobs taken over by robots]

Assembly assistance

Audi Assembly Assistance

Some parts to cars are very complicated and require a person to insert an array of small components. It can be difficult and very time consuming to identify the parts and find where it needs to go, so Audi has created an assembly assistance system called motionEAP.

It uses an infrared depth camera, which is actually a standard Kinect 2 from Microsoft. The camera sits above the table, streaming a live image to a screen where each part is shown alongside a circle around where it should be placed. As soon as it’s put in place, the circle will disappear automatically and move onto a new area.

Assistant drones

Audi Assistant Drones

Got a car part you need on the other side of the factory? Not to worry, a drone could be delivering it to you.

Audi is testing two types of drones – one which can carry items such as steering wheels around, another that can be used to offer camera-based repair and maintenance work.

These drones fly autonomously on a pre-set route, and can detect obstacles such as workers to avoid colliding with them.

How do you feel about the transformation of factories? Let us know in the Comments section below.