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Nissan robots may revolutionize how classic-car parts are made

Nissan's Production Engineering Research and Development Center has come up with a potentially revolutionary way of manufacturing low-volume components.

If you've ever restored a vehicle or just made simple repairs to one, you know how complicated even "basic" cars and trucks can be. It's one thing to fix a late-model vehicle, just run to your local auto parts retailer and grab the ignition coil, strut assembly, brake caliper or whatever is required to complete the job. But what if you need a replacement rocker panel or some metal trim piece for a low-volume model that's been out of production for decades? That's a much more challenging endeavor.

Sure, some specialty parts houses may carry what you need, but oftentimes certain components are simply not available. The costs associated with creating the tooling to manufacture a small handful of, say, floor pans for a Lamborghini Miura would be astronomical, making the whole endeavor completely impractical.

This is where Nissan's latest innovation comes into play. The automaker's dual-sided dieless forming process can make low-volume components out of sheet steel without the need for traditional presses. Manufacturing, for instance, a fender normally requires forming dies that force metal into the desired shape. This tooling is massive, has to maintain precise tolerances and as a result can cost millions of dollars. Beyond that, it sometimes takes multiple dies to manufacture more complicated parts as the metal can't be bent all at once in a single pass.

Nissan's breakthrough replaces dies with robots. A sheet of metal is held firmly in a frame and a computerized arm is placed on each side of it. Precisely controlled, these robots and their tool heads form the metal from both sides, gently pushing and molding it, creating intricate concave and convex forms as required. See the embedded video above for a glimpse of how this works.

Without traditional stamping presses this process is flexible, with short lead times and tremendously lower upfront costs. For these reasons and more, dual-sided dieless forming could make the production of low-volume components an economically attractive proposition.

Single-sided forming has been used to create parts, but it only works on simple components. The dual-sided process has also been around but was considered too complicated to commercialize.

Researchers at Nissan came up with three breakthroughs that addressed concerns, the company says. The first is more advanced computer controls that allow the robots to move with greater precision, enabling them to make much more complicated shapes. They also added a mirrored-diamond coating to the forming tools to cut friction, which in turn eliminated the need for lubricant, which the company says resulted in yet finer finish quality, greater environmental friendliness and lower costs. Finally, they optimized the pathfinding logic for the robots to further improve quality.

This dual-sided dieless forming process is an ingenious way of making low-volume components. It's unclear right now if Nissan plans to commercialize this development but the automaker is continuing to research ways of improving this innovative procedure.

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