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3D printed parts displayed in foreground during recent media tour of Toyota Tilt lab.

Toyota Tilts Toward the Future With Maker Lab

The lab aims to help the automaker rethink how it designs equipment and processes for manufacturing, via use of some innovative technologies including augmented and virtual reality.

GEORGETOWN, KY – Housed inside Toyota’s year-and-a-half-old, $80 million Production Engineering and Manufacturing Center here is the Tilt lab, a maker space where Toyota aims to “tilt” the way it approaches the process of assembling a vehicle.

In the words of lab manager John Tierney, Tilt is a mechanism for cultural change.

“(The lab aims to) move us from a traditional automotive view of, ‘Make every model the same way, do every process the same way,’ to try and help our team members do things differently and develop new processes,” Tierney tells Wards during a recent tour of the idea-generation lab.

There are eight studios inside the 7,000-sq.-ft. (650-sq.-m) lab, which is staffed by five engineers, two technicians, two engineering interns and one designer. Half the studios are dedicated to trends of the moment: augmented reality, virtual reality, additive manufacturing (i.e., 3D printing) and collaborative robots. A genius-bar-like consultation station also is on site.

Presently the automaker is testing Microsoft’s Layout AR software, demoing it here with an overlay in a plastics production cell of a Toyota plant.

The cell was rendered in augmented reality after determining an auto (computer-aided design) drawing of the cell was physically too big to walk through in virtual reality.

Tilt is providing feedback to Microsoft on the software and its HoloLens AR helmet, hoping to get automotive-grade products to design production equipment and processes.

“Previously what we did with production engineering was…any decision that was made, it had to be decided and investigated at our computers, at our desks, which is completely away from the work environment where this stuff is going,” says Zach Reeder, an engineer within the digital engineering planning and development (DEPD) section of Tilt.

 “Now we have an opportunity to go ahead and put a holographic machine on-line, give it to (an employee) for a testing period, and say, ‘Give me some feedback on this. Can you actually reach this, or is it too high or too low?’”

“Being able to make these evaluations, with respect to the work environment, can make completely new observations noticeable that you’d never be able to see previously,” Reeder says, noting it was determined there was enough space that a worker wouldn’t feel claustrophobic in the plastics work cell.

Toyota didn’t have AR when it was integrating the current-generation Camry midsize sedan, based on the automaker’s new TNGA platform, into the assembly line at its Georgetown vehicle-assembly plant next door.

If it did, it may have noted sooner the assumed points the carrier would touch the body were incorrect, says Navroz Dhindsa, another DEPD engineer at the lab.

“Of course, it didn’t fall in the right place but, had we had this tool to try it out visually in overlay on the body, it would have saved us a lot of money,” he says. “We didn’t have it back then, but looking back at it now we…would have found that problem much earlier.”

A unique aspect that may differentiate Toyota’s lab from those of other automakers is all employees are welcome, and not those strictly in R&D, Tierney says.

Demonstrating an augmented-reality welding training system by Miller, Dhindsa notes this type of welding can be done without any wasted materials or risk of the person getting injured. It also helps them develop the kind of muscle memory needed to perform tasks quickly on an assembly line.

“If you’ve never welded before as a person there is some fear, some anxiety, and of course there’s the potential risk of getting burned. Here there’s no risk of getting burned, it’s all digital,” he says.

With digital welding, the person operating the weld rod still gets to experience how he or she should hold the rod, with audible sparks heard while wearing a VR headset.

They also get real-time feedback in the form of scoring.

“I was OK in the beginning, but once I got to the end I was going way too fast,” says Reeder, pointing to a line graph tracking his speed during a demo (pictured below).

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While AR was determined best to render the plastics work cell, Toyota still has a virtual reality set up within Tilt, allowing evaluation of smaller spaces, such as vehicle interiors, to determine good ergonomic placement of controls and judge fit-and-finish.

Toyota is testing products from NVIDIA and Autodesk for VR. The day of this visit, NVIDIA Holodeck software was paired with an HTC Vive headset to virtually evaluate an interior.

VR (pictured below) also can be used to visualize a manufacturing worker’s specific task and fix any equipment issues before they become physical elements that need to be changed, at a sometimes-great expense.

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Toyota right now is working on simulating the full manufacturing process in VR. With some newer software it is looking at, Tierney says a person actually can interact with the automation of a machine.

“So you can turn on the machine, you can see it start to activate, you can break a light curtain and cause it to emergency-stop and fault out,” he says.

Toyota also is experimenting with having the simulation talk to the real programmable logic controllers (PLCs) that run the assembly line.

“So we can test the actual program that will run the line against the simulation here, before we build the actual equipment, to know that our line programming is correct,” he says.

Toyota already has roughly 15 collaborative robots (co-bots) in place in its North American plants doing tasks including applying headliner tape and wax sealant, but it is in test trials on three times that many co-bots for future use.

Collaborative robots have more situational awareness than industrial robots and thus can be placed on the line with assembly workers without fear of harming them.

Some of the tasks Toyota is looking to use a collaborative robot for include installation of plugs for paint-drain holes in the body and ceiling-mounted grab handles that go through a headliner.

“This (handle) historically for us has had high push force,” says Tilt engineer Julie Mercurio, joined by fellow engineer Trevin Wellman (pictured speaking below). “The team member has to sit there for two hours every day and push over their head this high-push-force object, every single day. So that creates an ergonomic burden on the shoulders.”

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A collaborative robot ideally will do the job someday, allowing the worker to take on a different task that doesn’t lead to sore muscles.

Additive manufacturing is predicted to explode within the auto industry. While Toyota currently has no 3D-printed parts in production, unlike some other automakers, it is exploring its possibilities.

The 3D printers in the lab here allow for the printing of hard or soft plastic parts, and one, a Markforged printer, integrates carbon fibers to create lightweight parts similar to those made of aluminum (pictured below).

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Tilt has printed parts for R&D, such as a handle for an e-brake ergonomic study undertaken by Toyota Technical Center in Michigan.

“Rather than having a vendor make it, we can print a couple, ship them up there, and they can do those kind of studies while designing the vehicle,” says Samantha Barber, Tilt engineer.

Toyota currently is exploring 3D-printed sand castings for engine manufacturing, she says.

Says Tilt engineer Huey Do: “(In general) you can print maybe a $75 part in materials vs. maybe a $7,000 part (made via traditional methods)…We printed a full bumper” used by Toyota’s in-house racing team.

Meanwhile, the consultation station is staffed by two workers who help employees problem-solve.

Says Tierney: “We can start to figure out what the next steps will be in helping you solve your problem. Is it something we can make for you real quick? Is it something we can train you (on), so you can make yourself? Or is it something we need to look at outsourcing, maybe help you find a vendor?”

Although only up and running since October, Tierney says Tilt has been so successful Toyota is considering setting up a similar lab at its Plano, TX, administrative, sales and marketing North America headquarters.

At this early date, Tilt’s success rate for problem-solving is mixed. If there has been a mandate to do a 3D-printed part or try something in AR, “it’s not always a success,” Tierney says. “If we’ve got a customer in the plant from the manufacturing side, and an engineer on the pre-production side supporting it, then our success rates are really good.”

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