Getting To Grips With Electromobility

Hayley Everett

How end-of-arm tooling is driving the transition to electromobility within automotive powertrain manufacturing

The transition away from vehicles powered by internal combustion engines (ICE) towards a new generation of electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrids is continuing to gather pace within the automotive sector. As a result, OEMs are investing not only in new pollution-free models but in the manufacturing systems and technologies required to meet growing demand from customers.

The production of EVs, therefore, requires a complete re-think of the technologies used to manufacture powertrain components. With batteries, electric motors, controllers, cables, and connectors replacing conventional ICE mechanical parts, new manufacturing methods and systems are being developed to achieve the production efficiencies, economies of scale, and quality levels demanded by the automotive sector.

Zimmer Group has been supplying end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) for automotive powertrain manufacturing and assembly for more than three decades. The company has been at the forefront of the technological transition to electromobility in recent years and has worked to develop several modular solutions for EV manufacturing proactively.

“Zimmer Group started developing EOAT solutions for electromobility applications as far back as 2014, and has since invested a significant number of engineering hours and R&D budget in developing and perfecting systems for this growing market segment,” says Richard Mason, Managing Director of Zimmer Group UK. “As a result, today Zimmer Group’s technologies are now used by all of the leading automotive manufacturers in the EV sector.”

Producing Economically

According to Mason, producing battery cells and modules economically is an important factor in ensuring that the EV market can continue to grow at the pace required. As for ICEs, high levels of automation will be essential.

To meet this challenge, Zimmer Group is leveraging its knowledge of powertrain assembly systems and working with partners in the automotive sector to develop EOAT technologies for battery manufacturing, module assembly, and electric motor production.

“In a dynamic market where the technology is continually evolving to meet the increasing demands of the consumer, Zimmer’s Gripper and EOAT systems for electromobility applications are designed with flexibility in mind,” Mason explains. “Our system solutions for the electromobility sector, manufactured by our in-house team, draw upon a comprehensive range of standard elements with field-proven reliability to produce gripping systems tailored to individual applications.”

Innovations in EOAT

Generally, energy storage systems for EVs feature a modular design consisting of single battery cells that are joined into modules which are then grouped to form battery packs.

The commonly used Li-ion battery has three different cell types: small solid cylindrical cells, larger soft pouch or polymer cells, and larger solid prismatic structure types. At each stage of the manufacturing process, these cells need to be handled, grouped and transferred both efficiently and securely.

Individual cylindrical cells are handled in multiples and arranged into modules, which in turn are assembled to produce completed battery packs. To improve this process, Zimmer Group has developed a comprehensive range of EOAT Gripper technologies capable of handling different battery cell types throughout the various assembly stages. The company’s gripper technologies are also able to handle the frames, baseplates, intermediate layer and cooling plates used in the construction of final battery packs.

“Although we have a wide range of pneumatically operated grippers, many of our solutions for the electromobility sector use servo-operated gripper modules,” says Mason. “These provide the capability to automatically adjust not only the gripper stroke position but also gripper force, making it possible to handle battery cells of different diameters if required, without the need for any mechanical changeover.”

The firm’s EOAT technologies have played a key role in a total of 40 high-profile electromobility projects, Mason adds, totalling 400 grippers and 2,000 devices that cover all aspects of the EV powertrain.

He states that the high levels of flexibility offered by Zimmer Group’s gripper technologies have enabled many premium automotive manufacturers to significantly improve their production methods for battery cells, packs and modules.

“Other important characteristics include the fact that the gripper parameters are stored locally in the gripper module, and stroke accuracy is 0.02mm,” he continues. “Supporting our gripper technologies is a separate range of axis compensation modules, which can accommodate three-dimensional offsets to cater for components which may vary in their presentation position.”

In addition to providing handling systems and fixtures for the production of battery cells, packs and modules, Zimmer Group also supplies specific system technologies for rotors, stators, contact rings, gears and other added-value parts along the EV supply chain.