A flexible tube press and welding system developed by ABB Robotics for Ford Motor Co. has been honored by the automaker as one of the best new technologies adopted by its Powertrain operations for 2012. The 2012 Ford Global Powertrain Technical Maturity Model Excellence Award was presented in November, having been chosen from 126 process technologies in use by Ford worldwide.

A second recognition, the “2012 People’s Choice Award”, also was presented to ABB for the same system.

Ford’s Sterling Axle plant in Sterling Heights, Mich., produces rear drive units (RDU), front axles, rear axles, and gears for Ford and Lincoln vehicles. The ABB tube press and weld system in use there is one of several welding system innovations that automakers have implemented in recent months, including technologies adopted by General Motors and Honda.

“We worked closely with the Sterling Axle team throughout the whole process, from the initial concept design to start up and commissioning at the Sterling Axle Plant. It was truly a collaborative effort between Ford and ABB,” according to ABB Robotics’ project manager, Pete Thomopoulos.

ABB’s system is part of Ford’s sub-assembly automation for the 9.75 and 8.8 rear axles for the Ford F-150 pickup truck and the transit utility van. As described by ABB Robotics, the system is capable of executing a complete changeover from one axle type to the other in less than 43 seconds — notwithstanding a difference in axle sizes.

This system achieves its flexibility thanks to a novel design and a vision system that detects and verifies the different models in production. Previous to this development, the two axles styles had been built on separate, mutually exclusive press and weld systems: one of these operated around the clock; the other that was underutilized due to lower volume requirements, according to ABB.