Making robotic welding more accessible for small business

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Companies offering RAAS are significantly lowering roadblocks for robotic implementation by utilizing technology that makes industrial robots more intuitive. PHOTO courtesy Path Robotics.

By Josh Leath

Supply chain challenges, skilled labor shortages and evolving customer requirements are prompting small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to maximize floorspace for greater productivity gains. Whether a customer needs higher quality parts or parts need to be made in-house for fluid supply chain and workflow, there are many factors at play. To assist these dilemmas and more, decision makers are turning to advanced technologies, including extremely flexible and reliable robotic automation.

Thanks to improved arm access, advanced device connectivity, interface usability and specialized automation welding equipment, industrial and collaborative robots are more equipped than ever to tackle tough challenges and perform risk-intensive tasks. Add the fact that robotic automation has the potential to provide considerable cost savings over the extended life of the robot (130,000 to 140,000 hours with proper maintenance), and the benefits are difficult to overlook.

For manufacturers looking to harness the power of the robotic advantage while maintaining a conservative approach where cost and floorspace are concerned, here are several robotic tools that are fostering a more minimalistic robotic mindset.

Compact Industrial Workcells

To add capacity for higher quality parts and to use skilled welders where they are strategically needed, fab shops are taking advantage of ultra-compact welding workcells that facilitate quick payback. Ideal for processing small parts for sub-assembly, space-saving solutions occupying as little as 1.4 meters (15 sq ft) of floorspace come complete with everything needed to successfully automate the arc welding process. From an extremely fast six-axis robot with an integrated weld package to overhead LED lighting, safety-interlocked side panels, UV-filtering polycarbonate, a Functional Safety Unit (FSU), built-in extraction hood and four-button operator panel with E-stop, greater throughput and quality can be achieved with the utmost safety.

Compact welding workcells deliver a highly flexible, cost-effective option for businesses to integrate robotics into current weld process. PHOTO courtesy Yaskawa.

For fabricators looking to scale-up manufacturing for more mid-size parts in low-mix settings, larger pre-engineered efficiency workcells with space-saving designs are a good option. Geared toward mitigating labor shortages and quality concerns in job shop settings, these solutions come in single- or dual-station configurations – where dual-station configurations can be individually tooled to weld different parts or used for sequential operations. Most workcells easily fit in a 110” trailer for simplified shipping and reduced setup time, delivering a highly flexible, cost-effective option to accommodate more projects for competitive edge.

Overall, basic space-saving welding workcells that enable a conservative approach to robotic automation can be the key to unlocking greater productivity for a range of fabricators. Regardless of the solution chosen, tooling and end effectors are easily changed, accelerating uptime for better return on investment (ROI).

Portable Collaborative Job Shops

Taking collaborative welding to the next level, collaborative workcells that can be moved throughout the shop floor, as needed, are ideal for optimizing small- to medium-sized part production for medium volume fabrication. Pre-engineered with a flexible work area, arc flash protection, fume mitigation and an IP67-rated cobot for use in harsh welding environments, these flexible job shops are well-suited for supplementing manual welding. The presence of Power and Force Limiting (PFL) technology (depending on risk assessment and application) enables safe operation with or in close proximity to human workers, and it also allows for the shift to full speed in industrial mode as production requirements evolve.

For manufacturers looking for something more compact and portable, mobile robotic weld carts are a good option. Like many collaborative robots installed in workcells, these durable cobots offer precise hand-guided teaching for quick implementation of the robot system and redeployment on demand or for rolling up to large heavy workpieces. Like their larger counterparts, these highly flexible robotic carts facilitate safe, reliable automation for consistent throughput of high quality products.

Greater Ease of Use Tools

Along with hand-guided programming, there are several other tools helping to alleviate that robot learning curve roadblock. From intuitive graphic interfaces to innovative pendants that eliminate the need for conventional coordinate frames (X, Y, Z), multiple advancements continue to address the lack of robot experience and programming knowledge. Enabling consistent weld quality are easy-to-use pendant applications that help users gain easy control of any weld process or parameter, including voltage, amperage and wire feed speed. User-friendly software applications for pick and place, palletizing, stacking, loading/unloading and more also enable fast development and deployment of robotic systems.

Making robots more accessible are state-of-the-art artificial intelligence (AI) machine learning and computer vision systems that make industrial robots more intuitive. Companies promoting Robots as a Service (RAAS) are especially savvy with this technology to lease as a complete solution, helping to remove the programming equation altogether with proprietary vision and perception systems that work to recognize where a part is in space, then adjusting the robot path and parameters in real time to accommodate variation.

Highly ergonomic, hand-held wands paired with a graphic user display allow even novice robot users to create, edit and run complex robot processes when needed. PHOTO courtesy Wandelbots.

Other unique technology geared toward the enablement of quick, easy and precise arc welding includes the use of hand-held wands and a graphic user display. Used to trace program points for easy command of the robot movement, these wands can mark single points or complex paths, enabling no-code programming with easy path adjustments, visual skill editing, fast editing and more. Most importantly, the use of these wands effectively reduces robot programming time from hours to mere minutes for optimal robot uptime.

Also serving to reduce robot programming downtime is the use of offline programming (OLP), where a 3D representation of a robotic workcell or production line is visually displayed to demonstrate how a robot can move along a programmed path. Highly efficient and cost-effective, OLP gives robot users the ability to design, test and adjust a robot program from a PC-based virtual environment, facilitating a high degree of uptime, especially for operations that cannot afford to interrupt production while a robot program is being written point by point from a teach pendant.

Simple Steps for Moving Forward

While no single robot or robotic system is a one-size-fits-all solution, the use of extremely flexible and capable robotic automation can bring considerable cost savings and productivity gains over the life of the asset. Fabricators that embrace this technology – even on the most basic level – should have the potential to realize transformational benefits leading to greater operational efficiency and competitive edge. Decision makers ready to learn more about the positive impact the minimalistic robotic mindset can bring to their production facility should contact a robot integrator or supplier. This can go a long way to answering any questions about choosing the ideal solution for a select operation, as well as facilitating smooth integration and achieving the best possible ROI.

Josh Leath is Sr. Product Manager, Welding at Yaskawa America Inc. – Motoman Robotics Division

Requiring minimal floorspace, dual-station workcells are designed to be versatile workhorses for small- to medium-sized parts or medium-volume production runs. PHOTO courtesy Yaskawa
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