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Robotics and Computer-Integrated Manufacturing 22 (2006) 409–419

Computer-aided assembly planning for the diemaking industry

Antonio Armillotta, Giovanni Moroni, Marco Rasella
Dipartimento di Meccanica, Politecnico di Milano, Piazza Leonardo da Vinci 32, 20133 Milano, Italy
Received 7 October 2005; accepted 28 November 2005


The paper describes a CAD-based approach to some management tasks related to the manufacture of stamping tools for car body
parts. The proposed method generates assembly plans for draw dies and trim/pierce dies from their design information. Die assembly is a
highly constrained process including a variety of part handling, measurement and surface finishing operations. As such, it escapes some
critical assumptions underlying most generative planning methodologies in literature. Such complexity is faced through a comprehensive
description model of the assembly process, which represents the space of all feasible operation sequences for any allowable die
configuration within a predefined domain. Once a specific configuration has been retrieved from solid and surface CAD descriptions of
die parts, the assembly model is instantiated into a graph-like data structure, which include only applicable operations and their
precedence constraints. An instance describes operations at a sufficient detail level to support time estimation, process documentation
and production scheduling. A prototype software tool derived from the assembly planning method has been tested in a real industrial
context, in order to evaluate its potential impact on the efficiency of die manufacture.
r 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Die manufacturing; Assembly; Process planning.

1. Introduction During last years, diemaking companies have been

improving their engineering, procurement and in-house
Tooling is the main cost factor in the production of machining practices through an increasing CAD/CAE/
conventional steel parts of car body. One of the reasons for CAM integration. To date, few efforts have been done to
the high cost of forming dies used for outer panels and extend the benefits of modern product data management to
underbodies is the large amount of work needed to the assembly stage. According to the above considerations
assemble them. A typical die (Fig. 1) is made by dozens on process complexity, significant margins for time and
of mechanical parts mounted on four main large-sized, cast cost reduction could be gained through the adoption of a
elements (lower shoe, blankholder, punch, upper die). structured methodology referred to as computer-aided
Within die manufacturing, the assembly process is a assembly planning (CAAP). As proved in different
complex set of activities, which follows CNC machining industrial contexts, the implementation of an integrated
of cast elements. It includes a number of very different CAD/CAAP software tool could be helpful to optimize the
operations, from part handling and fastening to bench assembly process for throughput and resource utilization.
machining, thermal treatment, dimensional control, sur- The present paper describes a method for the assembly
face finishing and die tryout. The whole process takes up a planning of draw dies and trim/pierce dies for sheet metal
great deal of personnel and machinery resources for several body parts. The development of a CAAP tool is proposed
months. Its efficient running is critical to avoid cost as an interfacing link between the design of a die and the
overruns and delays on production schedules. operational management of its assembly process. The
purpose of such integration is to streamline or automate
Corresponding author. Tel.: +39 02 2399 4925; fax: +39 02 7063 8377. several tasks, which are usually carried out by an unformal-
E-mail address: (M. Rasella). ized, empirical approach. These include preparation of

0736-5845/$ - see front matter r 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
410 A. Armillotta et al. / Robotics and Computer-Integrated Manufacturing 22 (2006) 409–419

company has been essential for a clear understanding of

key issues related to process modeling. It has also helped to
define software specifications and to test results on real
cases. However, it is claimed that the followed approach
can be proposed for similar problems in a wider class of
The remainder of the paper is organized as follows.
Sections 2 and 3 provide an overview of the method and
justify the approach with respect to related literature.
Sections 4–6 describe the three basic elements of the
planning architecture, namely the extendable knowledge
base, the extraction of CAD data and the generation of
assembly plans. Sections 7 and 8 discuss the results of
validation tests on the method and identify possible
extensions of the work.

2. Related work

The assembly-planning problem has been widely studied

since the introduction of commercial CAD packages based
on solid modelers [1]. Its relevancy to the manufacturing
industry was first recognized when robots with suitable
Fig. 1. Single-action draw die for outer body panels (courtesy: Fontana- accuracy to the execution of fine-positioning tasks became
Pietro SpA).
available. While paving the way for flexible automated
assembly, this innovation suggested the idea that a robot
line could be automatically reconfigured according to the
geometry of parts to be assembled. Early CAAP methods
were dedicated to task-level robot programming, i.e.
generation of a high-level sequence of operations for each
robot cell in an assembly system [2,3]. In a later phase, the
interest moved to different applications including product
design for ease of assembly [4,5], selection and design of
assembly systems, management of assembly lines [6,7].
A fast, data-driven definition of feasible operation
sequences is a critical condition for the efficient fulfilment
of all these tasks.
Most methods proposed in literature focus on auto-
mated assembly processes. These lend themselves to a
relatively simple geometric description, since robots lack
sufficient dexterity to complex motion trajectories and
ability to react to complex sensory information. Few
studies have investigated on reasoning criteria to describe
manual assembly, which poses special difficulties such as
more complicated part handling, two-handed manipulation
and the need to consider ergonomic requirements [8,9].
The search for assembly plans is usually carried out by a
generative approach, which involves direct reasoning on
Fig. 2. CAD integration in die assembly.
part geometry with little or no reliance on domain-
dependent information. Most available methods share a
common architecture deriving from general-purpose plan-
blueprints and other process documents, allocation of ning methods proposed in the field of artificial intelligence
resources to manufacturing projects and scheduling of [10]. In a first step, product data are analyzed to extract all
assembly work (Fig. 2). information concerned with the assembly process. This
The proposed method has been developed within a always includes the definition of contact relations among
specific industrial context, referring to an Italian company parts, typically expressed through a graph-like structure.
with a leading position in the field of automotive Based on geometric and relational information, combina-
diemaking (FontanaPietro SpA). The contribution of the torial algorithms generate a new structure (precedence
A. Armillotta et al. / Robotics and Computer-Integrated Manufacturing 22 (2006) 409–419 411

graph, AND/OR graph, state transition diagram) repre- ability. It implements a generative search for feasible
senting an ordered set of feasible assembly sequences operation sequences from adjacency relations among die
[11–13]. A final optimization step may select one or more components, without any reference to non-assembly
optimal plans according to such criteria as cycle time operations involved in the typical assembly process of
minimization and availability of assembly tools in the automotive dies [19].
system [14,15].
The main shortcoming of the generative approach is the 3. Approach
computational complexity of the problem, whose solution
space grows exponentially with part count. To overcome Some assumptions underlying generative planning meth-
this difficulty, the problem has been faced under simplify- ods are not satisfied in the assembly of large sized, highly
ing assumptions recognized as consistent with foreseen accurate tools such as stamping dies for the automotive
applications. Specifically, assembly plans are bound to be industry. Nonlinear plans result from the frequent need to
sequential (only a part or subassembly at a time is temporarily fasten parts for the sake of dimensional
manipulated) and linear (each part reaches its final measurements or functional tests, and then take them
assembly position by just one manipulation). Moreover, apart to allow remachining or finishing operations.
sequence generation algorithms are seldom able to treat Domain-dependent information is often critical in the
assemblies with large numbers of parts. Another typical organization of the assembly process, due to the unique
limitation of generative planners is the difficulty to enhance functional requirements of forming tools compared to
reasoning with technical knowledge related to the specific generic mechanical products. Constraints to feasible
product to be assembled. Little attention seems to have assembly sequences derive from both corporate practices
been paid to the variant approach, which has been and specifications of car manufacturers.
successfully attempted to tackle highly domain-dependent As a consequence of these special requirements, the
problems in the planning of machining processes. assembly process of a die cannot be regarded as a mere
Despite the availability of CAD/CAM tools dedicated to sequence of part-handling operations, and cannot be
diemaking, few studies have pursued the development of a analyzed through purely geometric considerations. Due
seamless integration between die design and manufactur- to the diversity of operations and resources involved, its
ing. Computer-aided process planning methods have been structure resembles a complex project made by a set of
recently proposed to streamline the CNC machining of activities subject to precedence constraints. A feasible
casting patterns and free-form surfaces of main die assembly sequence consists in each allocation of activities
elements [16–18]. A method for the generation of assembly to resources, which does not violate project constraints.
plans for stamping dies has been proposed to enable For any given die configuration, a CAAP tool must build a
simulations and design evaluations on product assembl- formal description of the project, which represents the set

Fig. 3. Overview of the CAAP system.

412 A. Armillotta et al. / Robotics and Computer-Integrated Manufacturing 22 (2006) 409–419

of feasible assembly sequences. Such description should be dies at the reference company, a descriptive model of
sufficiently clear to convey process information, and the assembly process has been built. As shown in Fig. 4,
sufficiently complete to allow process optimization. the model is organized as a network of relations among
However, there is a logical difference between the output lists of four basic entities: die parts, available resources,
of assembly planning and PERT/CPM charts or similar assembly operations and occurrence conditions associated
work breakdown structures. While the latter are inherently to them.
static models, assembly operations and their precedence The operation list includes any operation that could
relations must be explicitly evaluated as a function of die be involved in the assembly process of a die within the
configuration. In the proposed approach, the assembly given domain. Information related to each operation
description for a die is built as an instance of a includes:
comprehensive process model through the use of CAD
data. Specific views of the process are generated from the  type and amount of needed resources (operators,
instance according to the needs of supported applications machine tools, presses, coordinate measuring machines,
(documentation, time and cost estimation, scheduling). The material handling and other kinds of equipment),
architecture of the CAAP system, shown in Fig. 3, is selected from a list of available resources;
defined by the following concepts:  precedence relations with other operations, given their
applicability in a feasible assembly sequence; these
 Model: is the set of all assembly process descriptions for constraints can also involve phases, i.e. sets of opera-
any allowable die configuration within a predefined, tions to be carried out consecutively by the same
company-specific domain of variants; it contains de- resources on the same die element;
tailed information regarding assembly operations, which  an occurrence condition, selected from a list of
are arranged into a hierarchy of phases and subject to predefined ones; conditions may simply invoke the
precedence constraints; the information is stored in an presence of one or more die parts, or involve constraints
implicit form, i.e. it depends on die design parameters. on the values of part attributes;
 Instance: is the explicit description of the assembly  one or more time estimators, which express execution
process for a die; it is built from the process model time as a function of part attributes; in the simplest case,
through the extraction of assembly-related data from die typical of part-fastening operations, the function multi-
CAD models; the instantiation resolves model alter- plies a unit time by the number of handled parts; in
natives, eliminates inapplicable operations and prece- other cases, such as surface-finishing operations, it can
dences, and evaluates the execution time of each involve a different mathematical function of one or
operation from parameter values defined in die config- more geometric attributes (e.g. surface areas and edge
uration. lengths of the main die elements); alternative estimation
 Views: are subsets of information selected from a model functions defined for the same operation can be selected
instance and transferred to all interested subjects (design according to conditions on die parts.
and manufacturing engineers, shop-floor foremen and
operators); they include an estimation of time and cost, Part attributes are needed to check occurrence condi-
an assembly plan and an interactive graphical descrip- tions and to calculate the execution time of operations.
tion of assembly operations. Attributes have a different meaning for each part type, and
relate to such properties as size, shape complexity,
4. Process modeling mechanical construction and location in die assembly.
For the main cast elements, attributes may be related to
Through a preliminary analysis of all kinds of activities specific geometric properties: for example, areas of free-
involved in the manufacture of draw dies and trim/pierce form surfaces on die elements (punch, die, blankholder)

Fig. 4. Model of the assembly process.

A. Armillotta et al. / Robotics and Computer-Integrated Manufacturing 22 (2006) 409–419 413

Fig. 5. Part attributes and their use in process modeling.

influence the duration of most-finishing operations on the 5. Assembly data extraction

same surfaces. Attributes defined for all parts and cast
elements define the set of information to be extracted from The bulk of design data on a die contains a number of
the CAD description of a die. assembly related attributes. They need to be extracted in
A demonstration of how part attributes are used in order to define the corresponding assembly plan and to
process planning is shown in Fig. 5. The part in the estimate the time needed for the execution of each single
example (a die button for a trim/pierce die) is identified by operation within the plan. The main source of information
four attributes. Three of them (mounting part, size, shape) for this task is the CAD model of the die, which can be
take discrete values referring to choices among options, regarded as a hierarchical data set arranged on four levels:
while the latter (area of freeform surface) can take any die assembly, main elements, components and surfaces.
value within a continuous range. The assembly process for Specific kinds of attributes can be extracted from each
the die includes some operations, which involve the different level.
existence of at least one part of this type. At a first stage, Data extracted at assembly level include the type
attribute values are used to check the occurrence of these and basic dimensions of the die. Identification of die
operations in the actual assembly plan. Afterwards, they type (draw or trim/pierce, single or double-action, for
are used to select one of the available functions for the outer panels or underbodies) allows a selection of the
estimation of operation time, as well as to provide the applicable process model. Dimensional data, evaluated
values of parameters used in the selected function (con- with reference to a bounding box of the assembly,
stants appearing in time estimators have been altered for are needed to estimate standard times for such types
confidentiality reasons). of operations as CNC programming and dimensional
The model of the assembly process forms the knowledge control.
base for the planning method. In the software prototype, Information collected at the second level is aimed at
the information contained in the model can be changed and checking the presence of all main die elements. These
updated to accommodate for new part types and technical include the cast parts already shown in Fig. 1 for a draw die
improvements in the manufacturing process, whose impact and the corresponding parts (lower and upper shoe,
on the whole process can be readily evaluated with the help blankholder, blanking and piercing inserts) for trim/pierce
of the CAAP tool. dies. Missing die elements are usually related to incomplete
414 A. Armillotta et al. / Robotics and Computer-Integrated Manufacturing 22 (2006) 409–419

die configurations, which are likely to result into useless bending corners, contours to be deburred after CNC
assembly plans. machining). Such data are essential to estimate execution
The third level consists in the solid models of the single times for most machining and finishing operations. For
components to be mounted on main die elements. Guide example, the time needed to finish a punch surface is
pins, standoffs, gas cylinders, and lifters are examples of estimated as proportional to its area; while the time needed
these kinds of components. As a first step, for a correct to polish the blankholder surface is estimated as a linear
reconstruction of the assembly plan from the process model of punch edge length and of upper die surface area.
model, the presence of each type of component on the die This linear model is obtained from a regression study.
has to be detected. To avoid the resort to complex A software module has been developed within the
recognition rules, components are identified from basic CATIA V5 user interface to directly extract these
model properties, expressed as either numeric of string- information from CAD data and to transfer them to the
based data. Such information is arranged into a proper planning module. A recursion-based search allows to
format and provided by product engineers at design stage. explore the whole logical tree of die CAD model regardless
Further information, needed to correctly estimate the of its design history. The resulting data structure, stored in
execution time of each single assembly operation, include an appropriate file format, contains all information needed
part type, shape complexity and size. To extract type and to plan a correct assembly sequence and to calculate
complexity data, appropriate properties have been defined operation times.
and included in part models. These allow to recognize
either commercial or company-specific variants for many 6. Instantiation and view generation
components. For example, jacks used to lift the sheet metal
part after the drawing cycle are available in three different In the developed prototype, the final steps of assembly
types (T-shaped, cylindrical, air spring), which are distin- planning are carried out by a stand-alone software module.
guished from a ‘type’ attribute in model properties. Size This choice creates a logical separation between the
attributes, which affect execution time for many part- treatment of product geometric data and manufacturing
mounting operations, are recognized from model bounding information. While the former is naturally linked to the
boxes, extracted through dedicated calculation procedures. software design platform, the latter is most often accessed
Fig. 6 shows the extracted data for a sample part (the out of the CAD environment. In the perspective industrial
blankholder of a draw die). deployment of the software tool, this choice allows also
The fourth level, which includes face models, provides updates of the planning module to occur independently of
several kinds of geometric data on die components. These future releases of the CAD package.
include the areas of surface regions and the lengths of edges As said before, information transferred to the planning
involved in some operations (free-form surface, sharp module lists die parts and related attributes. Each parts is

Fig. 6. Assembly-related data for a die component.

A. Armillotta et al. / Robotics and Computer-Integrated Manufacturing 22 (2006) 409–419 415

Fig. 7. Summary and editing of basic die information.

recognized by its identifier as belonging to a given part jobs to manufacturing units. Based on unit costs of
type. Values of part attributes are assigned to parameters resources, a cost breakdown is also generated to identify
needed for planning calculations through rules depending margins for process improvements.
on part type. For verification purposes, the user is provided A second instance view provided by the software tool is a
with a list of parts to be mounted on main die elements graphical chart of the assembly plan, which shows
(Fig. 7). precedence relations among operations and allows to
As some planning parameters do not refer to informa- visually spot which phases of the assembly process can
tion contained in CAD models, user data are provided in occur simultaneously on different die elements (Fig. 8). The
addition to extracted part attributes (Fig. 7). These include chart identifies operations of the critical path, which
specifications on die materials, type of sheet metal part deserve special attention in order to avoid delays on
(outer panel or underbody), thermal treatments and assembly lead time. Such information is helpful to gain a
stamping tests, as well as some operation times, which complete understanding of the assembly process for both
have been evaluated off-line by manufacturing engineers. managers and engineers. For this purpose, users can also
Starting from both extracted and user-provided data, the request details on operation times and resources. Informa-
planning module builds the instance of the assembly tion presented through the user interface can be output in
process for the die. Applicable operations and related the form of worksheets useful for the preparation of paper
resources are selected through an evaluation of occurrence documentation on the assembly plan.
conditions based on die data. Similarly, subconditions for A third view provided by the software is a graphical
estimator selection are also verified in order to calculate the description of assembly operations. This is obtained
execution time for each applicable operation. Precedence through a sort of process ‘movie’ which illustrates, for
relations among applicable operations are calculated by each assembly phase and for each main die element, the
pruning the constraint set of the overall assembly model. path followed by single components from a die external
The instance is then stored in a convenient format for the position to final mounting position (Fig. 9). The digital
generation of user views. animation is automatically created from a set of images
A list of estimated operation times is output as a first that show the components at discrete position steps. This
view deriving from the instance. It provides an overview of information is helpful for operators to gain a complete
how total assembly time is spread among different types of understanding of each single assembly operation. For this
activities. It also allows to evaluate the workload for each purpose, operators are allowed to interact with the
available resource for the completion of the die. In the animation by changing the point of view and the zoom
reference company, this information is critical to allocate level.
416 A. Armillotta et al. / Robotics and Computer-Integrated Manufacturing 22 (2006) 409–419

Fig. 8. Schematic illustration of the assembly plan.

7. Results found in draw dies and trim/pierce dies with respect to die
size and configuration as well as combinations of part
Tests carried out on a first prototype of the CAAP count, types and sizes. For each case, the software tool
software tool have allowed a first verification of process has provided an estimation of lead time and total work
models and procedures for instantiation and view genera- content of the assembly process. For some sample dies,
tion. It has been noted that preliminary data collection and Table 1 shows the differences between estimated values
comparison of results to industrial practice are essential of these entities to actual figures recorded at manufactur-
phases for a critical analysis of assembly activities. As a ing stage.
result, process knowledge has been formalized at a more Estimates have been recognized as sufficiently accurate
detailed level than usually experimented in die manufac- for all intended applications. Specifically, resource alloca-
ture. As in most projects aimed at implementing computer- tion to manufacturing divisions is usually done under
aided planning, such effect is at least as important as are comparable tolerances on cycle time. The achieved benefit
practical benefits achieved in production management is especially in the short response time of the CAAP tool.
activities. Time estimates are immediately generated without the need
In order to validate the effectiveness of the proposed of any additional time delay at design stage. For the same
approach, some test cases provided by the partner task, former practice required a few workdays to be spent
company have been processed by the assembly planner. on each different die for paperwork and data collection
They account for the main variability factors that could be through interactive queries on CAD models. This need
A. Armillotta et al. / Robotics and Computer-Integrated Manufacturing 22 (2006) 409–419 417

Fig. 9. Video animation of mounting phases.

Table 1 resources shared by multiple projects. However, it can

Test results on the CAAP software prototype suggest corrective actions, which can remove constraints
Case Difference on lead Difference on total
and streamline the whole flow of activities.
time [%] work hours [%]
8. Conclusions
Die 1 8.8 2.9
Die 2 5.8 7.7
The use of the software prototype has confirmed the
Die 3 7.5 0.4
expectations, which suggested the development of an
assembly planning method. The most immediate impact
of the work is likely to affect manufacturing activities.
used to result in significant personnel costs due to the high Managers involved in resource allocation decisions
number of dies engineered at the company. can be provided with more responsive and accurate
Moreover, corporate managers have been provided with estimations of assembly time and cost. For manufacturing
documentation that was not previously available. This engineers, a CAAP tool is a valuable support to decisions,
includes assembly plans in worksheet format and calcula- which are often taken without full information about
tion of workloads on the different functions of the process variants imposed by specific dies. Assembly
assembly division (part handling, measurement, tryout operators can find interactive graphical information more
etc.). In the long run, such information will help to gain effective than paper blueprints for a quick understanding
insights for an efficient management of manufacturing of daily tasks.
personnel. As a positive side effect for diemaking companies,
Software-generated information about precedence rela- implementation of assembly planning is a means to
tions has allowed to build some Gantt charts of assembly collecting explicit corporate knowledge, which may be
operations. They could be essential tools for a thorough scattered among employees and paper archives. Moreover,
revision of assembly processes, whose bottlenecks can be due to CAD integration, many manufacturing evaluations
clearly identified. In the example of Fig. 10, the lead time of can be anticipated at design stage. This enhances the ability
the assembly process is clearly affected by three-time of design engineers to identify critical issues and process
consuming operations in the die tryout phase. The evidence bottlenecks, thus acquiring additional design criteria for
of their impact on process efficiency suggests the need to new dies. This opportunity will be better tested during the
consider technological alternatives that could ensure the first new projects that will be carried out with the help of
proper accuracy and surface finish on the die in accordance the CAAP tool.
with customers’ specifications. In general, such a time Future developments of the method will involve an
planning cannot be directly used for the scheduling of extension of assembly planning to different die types and a
manufacturing activities, which always deals with common complete testing of the software tool after its final
418 A. Armillotta et al. / Robotics and Computer-Integrated Manufacturing 22 (2006) 409–419

Op44.2 lead time
Op66.2 most critical operations
0 200 400 600 800 1000 1200 1400 1600

Fig. 10. Gantt chart prepared from CAAP output.

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