GAZ Group, Russia’s largest manufacturer of commercial vehicles (CVs), has completed what Vadim Sorokin, Group President, has dubbed “the most complex and large-scale project that GAZ has implemented in the last 15 years.” To accommodate production of the new GAZelle NEXT panel van, the OEM has performed a large-scale upgrade of its welding and stamping operations, investing a total of €132m (US$141m) in the facility.
The GAZelle NEXT, which comes in cargo van and cargo-passenger variations, is the OEM’s first foray into the 13+ cubic metre capacity van segment. A GAZ spokesperson explained to Automotive World that these new dimensions presented challenges that called for an overhaul of existing systems, and the introduction of further automation.
“Van production requires stamping, welding and handling of large surfaces, which in turn requires specific equipment,” she said, including robots with a higher cargo capacity and special dies in the stamping process. “This is a new generation of van that differs from the previous models, and not just in terms of design – GAZ has never produced vans with a body volume of over 13 cubic metres.” With a 13.5 metre capacity, the van is 30% larger than the previous generation of GAZelles.
Press machines on the stamping line have been fitted with equipment specifically designed for the project, to aid in the production of larger side panels, underframes and doors. Along the welding line, overhead tracks have been installed, which robots can grip on to. This allows for precise and speedy welding of hard-to-reach spots.
Putting the machines to work
Also key to the upgrade has been automation of the lines. “Robot systems can ensure high quality in components,” said the spokesperson. “They can eliminate human error, and allow for compliance with the stricter dimension and connection tolerances demanded by the new model.”
Numerous robotics suppliers have been involved in the project. Six-axis KUKA robots are used to handle parts along the stamping line, whilst 83 robots from Japanese supplier Fanuc are now used along the welding line. GAZ estimates that combined, stamping and welding operations are now over 75% automated. The Fanuc robots perform a number of tasks, including handling, welding, flanging, gluing and sealing materials. Using integrated feedback systems, welding robots ensure quality by comparing activity against preset parameters, and modifying their programs accordingly. Grinding operations, previously carried out by humans, have also been automated.
Quality improvements have been a key focus for GAZ as it continues to make headway in markets outside of Russia, and develop export programmes. With the launch of the GAZelle NEXT, the company will be targeting CIS markets.
Sticking with steel
On this occasion, GAZ has passed on the opportunity to make its stamping and welding lines suitable for multimaterial production. “Nearly all of our LCVs are made of galvanised steel,” said the spokesperson. “Economic efficiency remains the key criteria.” With multimaterial body production set to become standard practice, OEMs will now be looking at how their lines might accommodate steel alternatives, such as aluminium. For example, Skoda has recently shown what is possible at its Mlada Boleslav facility.