By Seth Angle
Automation is a game-changer for welding operations in facilities of all sizes and across manufacturing industries. Consider these advantages:
WELD QUALITY IMPROVES
No one will contest the skill human welders bring to their work, but even the best welders simply can’t reproduce identical results each time. Nor can two welders produce identical weldments. Factors like part fit up, ergonomics, experience, and fatigue contribute to variation in quality. Depending on the specifications required, that can mean substantial time and money diverted to rework or scrap.
In contrast, an automated welding system can be programmed with the exact motions and parameters to complete a weld the same way every cycle. The outcome is greater consistency and higher quality. And because tolerances and fit have a cumulative effect, the better each weld is, the better overall quality of the finished assembly or product too.
WORKPLACE CULTURE AND JOBS EVOLVE
Some of the goals for automation are to increase consistency, part quality, and throughput. People are still needed in robotic welding operations, but the nature of their work often changes.
Effects of automation on your workforce that you should anticipate include:
Initial hesitation and concerns about implementing automation.
Try to address these fears directly and keep employees in the loop about your plans. Explain that some welding tasks will be reassigned to the robot, but employees are still needed to oversee the robot’s welds, maintain a steady flow of components, and even troubleshoot or adjust the equipment.
Human welders will almost always still be needed to complete welds requiring more finesse to get just right and for operations a robot cannot do. Stressing opportunities for higher-level or a greater diversity of work and training shows employees they’re valued and needed.
The need for a mindset shift.
-For maximum success with automated welding, employees need to cultivate a big-picture perspective. Instead of focusing strictly on the components to weld, their role usually broadens to include all the things that keep the robot “busy” and maintain a continual flow of parts, for example:
-Monitoring upstream operations for a steady inflow of components
-Checking for uniformity and correct preparation of incoming components (e.g., joint prep, fit, angles)
-Comfort working with technology and a human-machine interface (HMI) to control and adjust the welding station
-Monitoring data about consumable use, weld parameters, and production
-Applying welding expertise to notice defects and adjust as needed
-Maintain and clean nozzles to keep the robot in good working order
-Ensure finished parts move to the next station efficiently
SKILL GAPS AND WORKER SHORTAGES MAY BE OFFSET
Skilled welders are in high demand, and many companies are struggling to fill those jobs. Automating some or all your welding work can reduce the number of welders you need to hire. For example, one skilled welder can oversee multiple automated welding cells.
THROUGHPUT AND EFFICIENCY INCREASE
When planned and programmed appropriately, automated welding boosts throughput at the same or higher rate of speed than manual welding. The most important factors for efficient operations are:
-Continual operation of the robot. A robot works without the bathroom breaks, time off, or shift changes people require. Even small pauses due to accumulated fatigue through the day can add up to unscheduled breaks that impact production. In contrast, a welding robot operates at a consistent speed without idle time or unplanned stoppages. That adds up to more uptime, so the overall production rate is higher.
-Upstream part prep. The condition in which parts arrive to the welding cell matters. Robots work best when parts have as little variation as possible, including clean and smooth edges, proper bevels, and repeatable dimensions. These ensure parts go into fixtures correctly and line up right, both of which a robot cannot adjust for on the fly (as a human could).
-Letting the robot do its work. It may seem obvious, but there may be some temptation to continue doing welding manually instead of taking the initial time to get parameters and motions just right. Your integrator and your operators will need to commit some time to making sure the entire system is optimal, but the payoff is greater consistency of parts and higher quality.
GETTING THE MOST VALUE FROM ROBOTIC WELDING
Manufacturers of all sizes use robotic welding in industries ranging from automotive and aerospace, to electronics and medical devices, to consumer goods and appliances.
There are many ways to incorporate automation into welding operations, but simply put, the best option for your particular situation is whatever you will use the most. A welding robot that sits idle for hours or days because it is only used for infrequent tasks doesn’t bring much value.
Instead, put a robot on the specific welding jobs that:
-Make up the bulk of your welding work, or
-Are prone to errors or inconsistencies by human welders, or
-Exceed the current skillsets or time your welders have, or
-That bog down production.
Most types of welding can be accomplished with robotic arms, including MIG, TIG, laser, and plasma welding as well as spot welding.
BUILDING AN AUTOMATED WELDING SYSTEM
A robotic welding system is about more than just a robot arm holding a torch. All of the following impact how well the system functions and should be part of your plan:
-Welding components. These include the welding power supply unit and robot arm as well as cables and gas supply lines, the torch, electrodes or weld wire, reamers, sensors, user interface screens, and control software to monitor and run the system.
-Fixtures. Thoughtful fixturing keeps weldments stable and properly positioned for welding by a robot (which can’t make any “on the fly” adjustments to torch angle or access points like a person can). Fixtures include clamps, part holders, positioners, turntables, and tooling that shifts or swaps out to accommodate changeover between parts in a family.
-Safety equipment. Welding is still dangerous, even when a robot does it. Sensors can be used to detect the presence of a person or body part, gates and guards can be installed to prevent the robot and torch from moving when someone is in the cell or when the gate is open, and keyed lock-out systems and interlocking gates add multi-layered checks before equipment powers up.
-Data monitoring capabilities. Welding systems can be equipped with software to track current, gas pressure, and wire consumption over time. They can also monitor productivity statistics like cycle time and number of units completed. This makes it easy to spot trends in production, signs of parameters that need adjustment, or potential maintenance issues.
-Parts/inputs. Robots repeat identical movements, and for best results and highest quality, they need to be supplied with parts that are as uniform as possible. Things like fit up, joint preparation, joint angles, and whether components come from a CNC or manual workstation influence the amount of variability.
-Cell/workstation configuration. Consider how the welding workstation or work cell will be laid out and physically integrated with your other workstations. Be sure the welding robot doesn’t impede traffic, create extra trips, or cross into walkways. It can be helpful to think about future expansion options, as explained here.
Learn more in our guide to welding system design.
Seth Angle is President of Force Design, Inc.