"The new robotic welding and assembly system set up for testing in the "Shark Tank."Click image to enlargeby Mary Scianna

Vision enabled robotic welding system key to bringing manufacturing back to North America

The Problem: Seam welding with a MIG welder
The Solution: A robotic welding and assembly system

 

Everyone talks about innovation, but very few people are doing anything with it. We're full blast on it and having great success."

The "it" Michael McCourt, president of D&D Automation, Stratford, ON, is talking about is a new robotic assembly and welding system his company developed, the VERA system, which stands for Vision Enabled Robotic Assembly.

"Our vision is vending machine style manufacturing where you can punch the part you want, the quantity you need, and the machine will kick out the part at the other end, fully assembled and welded," explains McCourt, who has sold the system to manufacturers in Canada and in the US, and plans to sell it in South America, Europe and other parts of the world.

VERA is the solution to a challenge D&D Automation set out to overcome: solve the vision robot interface problem in a manufacturing environment.

Eight years ago, McCourt realized that as a control systems integration company, it had become skilled at taking products off the shelf and integrating them into a robotic manufacturing system, but the company did not have a patent on a single technology. McCourt took a cue from Xerox and Hewlett Packard and created a skunk works-like space in his company called the Shark Tank.

"I wanted to steer the company in the direction of innovation and it's a huge undertaking," explains McCourt. "The number one thing about innovation is not the tools nor the training; it's the culture. You have to create a culture where people feel free to bring ideas forward and sometimes, the craziest ideas are the best ones. And that's what we did here by creating the Shark Tank. It's a space full of technology with robots, controllers and vision systems; you name it and we've got it when it comes to automation. VERA is a result of our efforts."

McCourt says you should not try to go it alone with innovation. "You have to consider partners. When you are looking for partners you need people who can act on their dreams. We found just such a partner in ABB. It is an excellent partner for our innovation efforts because it has industry leading technology with open architecture and, most importantly, it has people with open minds. When we need technical support ABB is always there and when we need brilliant people to help brainstorm new innovation, the company has a great team of individuals."

Casey DiBattista, general manager, robotics, ABB Inc., says the partnership between the two companies is a natural fit. "Michael's passion for innovation makes his company an excellent fit for our ambitions here at ABB. We want dedicated partners in this industry and D&D is exactly what we look for. Our two companies are going to do some amazing things together and Michael and I are just getting started."

The idea behind VERA, fully robotic assembly and welding, began with D&D's efforts to solve a difficult and prevalent problem with robotic welding: seam welding with a MIG welder.

"If you manually weld two pieces of metal together, you simply bead down the seam and if a section of the bead needs a 3 mm bead and another section needs a 5 mm bead, the welder accommodates this. With a robotic welder, it makes the exact same path every single time, so if you're applying a 3 mm seam weld and the parts shift, the weld beam will be off and you now have a bad weld. So we developed a technology for seam welding which has a vision system."

D&D Automation built a prototype and showed it to a customer who was impressed with the technology but said his bigger problem was with fasteners and nut welding.

So D&D switched its focus and developed a resistance welding system under the VERA name for fastener manufacturing.

"The technology has taken off because we were able to solve the vision robot interface problem and we can now do assembly, nut welding, studs, rivets, bolt-on and torque welding and the way our system is designed means it can be built into multiple welding cells for further automation," says McCourt.

The VERA system consists of an ABB robot, a Cognex camera and a Rockwell PLC packaged together with the VERA technology.

While D&D has built several machines, McCourt says he plans to partner with other machine builders to fabricate the robotic welding automation system.

"We're building systems for fabricators and welders. While we plan to partner with other builders to make the VERA system, we're also building our own unit for testing and R&D. And we'll also be equipped to do small part runs as a contract manufacturer."

A basic VERA machine costs approximately US $450,000 and the ROI can range from an immediate payback to approximately two years, depending on a shop's volume of work.

McCourt says the biggest benefit of the system is that fewer welders are required in a shop.

"It's difficult to get qualified welders and typically you need one welder for every station and every process, so you need a shop full of qualified welders. But even a qualified welder makes a different weld every time. A robot makes the exact same weld every time, which means, if the robot is programmed correctly, quality will go up and so will productivity."

Automating a welding process doesn't mean eliminating workers, he adds. "When you automate the welding process you should take your best welders and get them teaching the robots. In effect, you're cloning your best people and now your best welder can be in charge of 20 welding processes. Don't eliminate your welders; expand your business using technology." SMT

D&D Automation Inc.
ABB Canada

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