is Research Assistant at the Laboratory for Machine Tools and Production Engineering (WZL) at RWTH Aachen

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1 Research A s s e m b ly T e c h n o l o g y authors Dipl.-Ing. Jan Eilers is Research Assistant at the Laboratory for Machine Tools and Production Engineering (WZL) at RWTH Aachen University (Germany). Optimising the Process Chain in Rear Axle Alignment Processes in vehicle final assembly are characterised by fluctuations in production volumes and an increasing number of product variants. On the basis of a study of current axle types and process chains, the Chair of Assembly Systems at the Laboratory for Machine Tools and Production Engineering (WZL) of RWTH Aachen University in cooperation with Dürr Assembly Products has developed a concept for a reconfigurable rear axle setting station. Dipl.-Ing. Armin Herrmann is Product Line Manager Assembly at Dürr Assembly Products GmbH in Püttlingen (Germany). Dipl.-Wirt.-Ing. Christian JaNSSen is Research Assistant at the Laboratory for Machine Tools and Production Engineering (WZL) at RWTH Aachen University (Germany). Prof. Dr.-Ing. Rainer Müller is Director of the Chair of Assembly Systems at the Laboratory for Machine Tools and Production Engineering (WZL) at RWTH Aachen University (Germany). 38

2 1 Introduction 2 Identifying the optimum rear axle alignment option 3 Achieving flexibility in rear axle setting 4 Outlook 1 Introduction Due to strong competition in the automotive market, the industry is under constant pressure to achieve cost savings and thus to optimise production processes. The optimisation of the assembly process chain in particular is seen to hold great potential. To adress this potential, the rear axle alignment process will be analysed within the framework of the research project presented here. There are essentially two optimisation approaches. One involves the point of carrying out rear axle alignment during the assembly process, while the other aims at achieving greater flexibility in rear axle setting stations. 2 Identifying the optimum rear axle alignment option There are various options to adjust toe and/or camber of the rear axle in the assembly process chain, from pre-assembly of the rear axle to commissioning of the entire vehicle at the end of line. 1 shows the assembly process chain of a rear axle. The individual components of the rear axle are firstly put together on a rear axle assembly line to form an axle module. On the loading line, the entire chassis, consisting of the front and rear axle, is then loaded together with the powertrain onto a module carrier. After this, the chassis components are joined and bolted to the car body, during what is known as the marriage process. The alignment of the rear axle may be carried out on a setting station at the end of the rear axle assembly process, on the loading line prior to marriage, on the main assembly line after the marriage process or at the end of line (EOL) on a wheel alignment stand. Generally, the rear axle toe values are measured at the EOL. These toe values are taken into account for the alignment of toe values of the front axle. The various alignment options mean that assembly planners need to decide at which point the alignment may be carried out in an optimum way. In order to address this issue, the entire assembly process chain (from the pre-assembly of the rear axle module to commissioning the vehicle at the end of the assembly line) was recorded and analysed during this project. Within the framework of the analysis, an interview was carried out with experts from various German car manufacturers. At OEMs and axle manufacturers, all of the options shown in 1 are currently employed. This may be explained by the fact that the optimum alignment option is dependent on the boundary conditions in each case. For this reason, a method was developed for determining the optimum alignment option by taking the boundary conditions into account, 2. To achieve this, all criteria relevant for the alignment were recorded. Subsequent to this, an assessment was carried out to determine the degree to which each of the options for aligning the rear axle in the assembly process fulfils the criteria. One example criterion is the variant generation during vehicle final assembly. It must be noted that, in some cases, axles produced by an axle assembly plant which supplies to several vehicle final assembly plants, are not initially allocated to a specific vehicle. The allocation occurs at the vehicle final assembly plant. In this case, it makes sense to carry out rear axle alignment during vehicle final assembly, as it is only at this point that the vehicle- 03I2011 Volume 4 39

3 Research A s s e m b ly T e c h n o l o g y ❶ Options for carrying out axle alignment specific parameters which are relevant for the alignment, such as the ride height, are known. The optimum method of rear axle alignment may be determined with the aid of user weighting on the basis of the criteria and the degree to which they are fulfilled. Via this weighting, the relevant boundary conditions in each case, such as the planned degree of automation, are considered. This approach provides assistance in decision-making with respect to the best option for carrying out rear axle alignment in the assembly process. Another example of a criterion from 2 is represented by the accessibility to the toe/camber adjustment mechanism. In some series, these mechanisms are difficult to access once the rear axle has been assembled to the vehicle. In this case it is advantageous to carry out the alignment during axle assembly or on the loading line. Parallel to this example is a range of criteria which favours carrying out rear axle alignment during rear axle assembly. On the basis of the observation that aligning the rear axle on the axle assembly line is currently the most frequently used process, this option will be analysed in more detail in the following. This observation is also confirmed during the discussions with experts that were held within the framework of this project. Furthermore, this alternative is in line with the general trend of assembling only those modules that have previously been tested and whose quality has been verified. 3 Achieving flexibility in rear axle setting Due to the increasingly turbulent production environment, setting stations in rear axle assembly are particularly affected by demands arising from the difficulty in predicting volumes and from the increasing number of product variants. For this reason, an analysis of the current diversity of axle variants is being used as a basis for developing a concept for a reconfigurable rear axle setting station. 2 Procedure for determining the optimum rear axle alignment option 40

4 3 Set-up of a rear axle setting station 3.1 Current setting stations and motivation To adjust the toe and camber values on the pre-assembly line, automatic setting stations are typically used, 3. After the axle module has been assembled, the wheel geometry (toe and camber) is measured and adjusted there. The setting station largely consists of the following units: wheel hub lifting devices, clamping units, spring load units, measuring units and bolting and setting units. All of these units are secured to a basic frame. After the setting station has been loaded with the axle, the axle module is fixed to the car body connection points (axle clamping points). The wheel hub support units are used to take up the wheel hubs. Firstly, the axle is being pulsed with a defined suspension load in order to minimise later settling phenomena. Force is introduced via the wheel hub support units and the spring load unit. Prior to the actual measurement and setting process, the axle is brought into the compression state that corresponds to the final assembled position in the vehicle. In this load state the wheel geometry is then aligned by the alignment bolts provided for this purpose. Currently, table and portal stations are used for axle pre-setting, 4. The machine technology varies depending on the production boundary conditions, which are specified by the type of axle, the given cycle time and the transport technology, among others. Against the background of the changing automotive market, particularly over the past few years, it is necessary for automotive suppliers and OEMs to use automation solutions that enable them to react quickly to changes in the production environment. This results in a considerable need for reconfigurable machine concepts which basically take two reconfiguration dimensions into account. The machine technology should be able to adapt rapidly to different product variants. Furthermore, it should also have the ability to react to dynamic volume changes. In order for future machine technology to meet the demands of reconfigurability, consistent modularisation of the functional groups is necessary. 3.2 Product and process analysis In order to develop a reconfigurable rear axle setting station, those product and process characteristics need to be known which have an impact on the machine design. One significant characteristic when designing a machine, for example, is the way in which the axle is centred during the setting process. This may be achieved via boreholes in the axle sub-frame or via the car body connection points of the rear axle. This characteristic affects the centring unit of the 4 Rear axle setting station designs 03I2011 Volume 4 41

5 Research A s s e m b ly T e c h n o l o g y 5 Classification of axle designs setting machine. Whereas special centring units need to be provided in the setting station when centring is achieved via boreholes in the axle sub-frame, centring using the car body connection points is carried out with the existing clamping units of the setting station. In order to enable cost-efficient reconfigurability using a modular machine design, the typical combination of these axle characteristics needs to be identified. This may be achieved by classifying current rear axles, that is, by assigning rear axles to different classes. For this reason, a classification was developed which enables modern rear axles to be summarised according to assembly characteristics. To achieve this, a population of 26 rear axles from different car manufacturers and different series were analysed and compared with respect to assembly-relevant axle characteristics, 5. Five classes were identified, and approximately 70 % of the axles in the population could be assigned to these five classes. As the axles within a class are highly uniform from an assembly viewpoint, assigning several axles to one class considerably simplifies the formation of the modules. This enables class-specific modules to be developed which may be used for all axles of each particular class. 3.3 Reconfigurable rear axle setting station In the following, a method for developing reconfigurable assembly systems is presented, 6. The structure of the rear axle setting station is broken down into individual modules based on the product and process analysis and thus on the demands of the assembly tasks. The foundation for this was provided by the aforementioned axle classification, which was compiled by carrying out a comprehensive analysis of current axle concepts. Decisive in defining the module boundaries is the fact that an assembly task a responsibility is clearly allocated to the individual modules. The clear 6 Reconfigurable rear axle setting station 42

6 scope definition of each module ensures the functional independence of the assembly system. The functional breakdown of the machine structure allows various technical applications to be achieved for the modules. For various scaling levels, for example, manual or automated technical characteristics may be envisioned for applying the modules, and these may be used with little effort when needed. Furthermore, by taking the product characteristics into account, variable interface concepts may be provided to enable adaptation to various axle classes. The benefits of this procedure are shown in 6. The concept of the rear axle setting station developed in this project, which may be used in a largely universal manner, is shown by way of example on two possible scaling levels. On the first scaling level, both the feed of the axle into the machine and as the actual setting process may be carried out manually by a machine operator. With increasing production capacity, an automated setting unit may be added to the assembly system and integrated to a line with low levels of effort. The reconfigurability of the innovative axle setting station that is thereby achieved increases the adaptability to demands that are difficult to predict, such as volume fluctuations or new axle types. 4 Outlook Through the integrated analysis of the entire assembly process chain, from axle pre-assembly to the EOL during vehicle final assembly, the results obtained show the optimisation potential during rear axle alignment. On the one hand, the issue is addressed as to where in the entire assembly process chain the wheel geometry of the rear axle may be aligned in an optimum way. On the other hand, a method was presented which allowes a reconfigurable rear axle setting station to be developed. The innovative concept of a rear axle setting station provides the opportunity of being able to react to volume fluctuations and new axle variants with low levels of effort. Thanks The research project Reconfigurable Rear Axle Setting Station is being carried out in collaboration between the WZL of RWTH Aachen University and the company Dürr Assembly Products GmbH. The project is funded by the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology (BMWi) on the basis of a resolution passed by the German Federal Parliament within the framework of the central innovation programme for mediumsized enterprises (ZIM). The authors would like to thank their co-authors, Dr.-Ing. Dipl.-Kfm. Martin Esser from the WZL, and Dipl.-Ing. (FH) Ian Müller-Gräff, Dipl.-Ing. (FH) Gerhard Heiduczek and Dipl.-Ing. (FH) Pascal Durant from Dürr Assembly Products GmbH, Püttlingen (Germany). 03I2011 Volume 4 43

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