An estimated 95 to 99% of all military ground vehicles are spray painted manually. To achieve complex camouflage patterns, operators must apply and spray a template to get the pattern in place before spraying the various colors. The template part of the process alone can take an hour or more for a single large vehicle.
“Painting is the bottleneck, and applying critical coatings makes the finishing process take even longer,” says Kirk McLauchlin, president of AeroBotics, a Huntsville, AL-based integrator of robotic systems. “There’s a ton of labor associated with painting and post-painting processes. It’s a big blip on the radar of processes that need automation.”
Painting military vehicles using automated robotic systems can save millions of dollars, improve quality, protect workers and open up the most problematic bottleneck defense contractors face, thereby allowing them to get vehicles to the soldiers as quickly as possible.
Technology and Methodology TransferTechnology transfer from the defense sector to civilian use is well documented, from carbon fiber to satellite global positioning to the Internet. Less known are instances where technology like robotics has been perfected in the civilian world and then brought to the military.
“Up until five or six years ago, there wasn’t much automation in the defense vehicle sector,” McLauchlin explains. “Military contractors primarily have used custom automation, equipment that costs millions of dollars and might or might not work. We decided to take off-the-shelf robotics from the automotive industry and add the advanced software and process tools that would allow these systems to meet military finishing needs.”
The result is a less expensive system that is less risky to install and operate. FANUC Robotics has 120 robots in defense painting applications around the country, mostly in the aerospace sector. Jerry Perez, account manager for Paintshop Automation at FANUC Robotics, Toledo, OH, says that there’s more being transferred from the auto industry to defense contractors than technology when an automated painting system is installed.
“It’s not just the technology but the methodology,” Perez says. “A lot has been learned in the consumer automotive industry about robotic painting methodology and equipment that can easily be applied to defense applications.”
Lessons about fluid delivery controls, system controls and project implementation - including training and maintenance - are among the details that are passed along to defense contractors with the robots themselves. Other benefits include the principles of Lean and Six Sigma, which have taken a firm hold in the automotive industry. Lean focuses on maximizing process velocity, eliminating waste and nonvalue-added work. Six Sigma eliminates defects and variation through changes in culture and processes.
“High-precision coatings have long been used in aerospace, and high-volume, Lean and Six Sigma principles are standard in automotive,” Perez says. “We’re marrying the two and bringing them to military ground vehicles.”
The Benefits of AutomationThe benefits of replacing a manual spray-painting operation with an automated system are legion. Automation can perform 80 to 95% of the painting process. The 5 to 20% difference covers areas on these vehicles that require manual touchups,
“From our perspective, the benefits lie in repeatability,” McLauchlin says. “The coatings are almost always critical coatings that have some type of innovative performance capability, whether they’re stealth coatings or some other type of high-performance material that has to be sprayed on in a very specific and reliable manner. A robot is the only thing that can consistently paint these coatings with the repeatability and flow-rate tolerances that are required to allow these coatings to perform the way they are designed.”
FANUC Robotics’ Perez says the biggest benefits of automation are being able to program camouflage patterns offline and being able to deal with variations in vehicles.
“In a Humvee, you have maybe 25 or 30 physical variants,” Perez explains. “The depots might come across a vehicle that has a special one-off box or tank attached to it. We’re designing our software to incorporate that programming flexibility to maintain the highest efficiency in the painting cell.”
Automation provides predictable and repeatable quality, lower material and warranty costs, lower labor costs, and improved worker safety. Quality is improved with automation’s consistent gun target distances and sprays that eliminate paint sags and runs. Waste is reduced because gun triggers are more precise, paint is delivered consistently, and transfer efficiency is higher.
Warranty costs associated with rework, scrap and build variations are virtually eliminated. Labor costs - including worker compensation claims for repetitive motion injuries, turnover and manpower - are reduced. And employees are removed from a hazardous environment, which also reduces the need for costly protective gear for operators.
Despite the obvious benefits, many hurdles exist between today’s mainly manual painting and future automated paint booths at defense contractor facilities.
“People have the classic fear that robots are going to take jobs away,” McLauchlin says. “That’s almost never the case. People get diverted to other jobs. For a painter that has to suit up and deal with paint-related chemicals, almost any job that doesn’t involve such exposure is a good one. Some become trained operators and actually get moved up a pay grade as they gain a new skill.”
Robotics suppliers that aspire to get their equipment into defense contractor facilities face an increase in specifications and requirements, paperwork, long sales cycles, and navigating through the government bid process. “That’s the nature of the business,” Perez says. “A lot of R&D, validation and testing is required.”
Becoming a Robotic Systems ExpertConverting from a manual painting operation to an automated one is a thorough process that begins when the robotics specialists first enter the contractor’s facility. Initially, contractor and military personnel outline what they expect an automated paint system to do and what problems it should solve. Most of the time, the drivers are to reduce touch labor, achieve higher consistency and quality, and improve the work environment.
Next, Perez says, “We do an applications design, validation, simulation, and cycle-time study, collect data for return on investment analysis, and compile a system proposal. Included in the proposal are maintenance schedules, preparation of manuals and anything else that’s needed to run an automated system. Also part of the proposal is a six-month contract to train contractor employees to fully operate the system.
“By the time we hand off the system, the contractor’s people are running paint checks, doing maintenance on the system, operating it, debugging it, troubleshooting it and doing offline programming,” Perez says. “At the end of six months, the defense contractor is a systems expert.”
Both McLauchlin and Perez say the need for automation in this segment of the defense industry is so great that they expect painting robots to proliferate quickly at vehicle manufacturers and Army depots.
“Robots improve productivity and the overall finishing process,” McLauchlin says.
For more information about FANUC Robotics, call 800.iQ.ROBOT (477.6268) or visit www.fanucrobotics.com. For more details about AeroBotics, call 256.772.9035.
ONLINE EXCLUSIVE SIDEBAR: Dramatic Productivity ImprovementsA new-vehicle manufacturer recently converted to automated systems and is seeing dramatic improvements in productivity. The vehicle manufacturer went from painting 35 vehicles per day with a 30-year-old robotic system to more than 100 per day with today’s technology. That facility uses four four-gun FANUC Robotics robots and sprays four colors without changeover.
An Army Depot that refurbishes vehicles returning from the field was manually painting its vehicles before installing two FANUC Robotics robots that paint one color at a time. It takes 15 minutes to spray the first base color both manually and robotically. However, the number of operators required decreased from three to one with the addition of automation. Manual painting of camouflage at the depot took three people seven minutes to apply the brown and 10 minutes to apply the black, and only 16 vehicles could be painted per day with two shifts. With automation, one operator sprays brown for three minutes and black for five minutes, and the same number of vehicles can be completed in just one shift. Further advances will come when other inefficiencies in the system are worked out, such as implementing better environmental controls in the paint booth.
Another facility, the Red River Army Depot in Texarkana, TX, is in the process of acquiring robotics for its paint shop. Michael Starks, a civilian general engineer at Red River, says he is looking forward to having the robots installed. “We feel it’s going to allow us greater throughput with higher efficiencies, which will save paint and improve our environmental impact,” Starks says.