- February 24, 2021
How a rental cobot saved the day for an Ontario job shop with an emergency order
Few things induce a bigger sense of pride for a job shop owner than when a major customer calls with an emergency order or a problem they need you to solve for them. It’s a badge of honour that means you are trusted and respected for your performance and results.
But there’s a flip side to this coin. Emergency orders tend to have short timelines and stringent specifications. Fulfilling these types of orders often ties up capacity that was already scheduled for something else. They require unplanned retooling and put a lot of pressure on your workers to be fast and accurate. Many job shops have been left floundering trying to complete such an order, with complications and rework eating up most of the profit margin and souring a previously good relationship.
Indeed, the stakes are high—your customers have their own customers to satisfy, and they are counting on you to make it happen.
This was the exact situation faced by Paragon Rapid Manufacturing Ltd., a rapid prototyping company and short-run welder in Concord, Ont.
In early April 2020, Don Ham, Paragon’s managing director and one of three partners who own the business, received an urgent call from a division of Magna Intl., one of his most important customers. The division had identified a potential safety issue in one of its own customer’s products and proposed a solution, but needed Paragon to produce about 50,000 pieces in the space of just two months to properly implement the fix.
No job shop in its right mind turns away this kind of work. The client is too important, and if you turn this down once you will never see a job like this again. So, Ham accepted the job knowing there was going to be some sleepless nights as he worked with his engineers to figure out exactly how they would be able to do it.
“We had the welding capability for the job, but we did it manually, so there was no way the couple of welders on staff could do the job in time—it was something like 1,200 pieces a day and we could manage about 200 pieces a day,” says Ham, who lined up a few subcontractors to handle the overload. However, even with outsourcing a portion of the contract, the job had several challenges.
“I would have had to ship out all of the components to the subcontractors, then ship them back to my shop. Also, manual welding could cause quality issues, consistency issues and delivery issues. It was very worrying.”
Ham costed out the job, including the subcontracting and logistical costs, and sent in the quote. For the customer, cost was no object, and—for better or worse—the quote was accepted and Ham had a couple of weeks to sort out the specifics before he had to get started running parts.
“Making all the metal stamping tools wasn’t an issue, that’s what we do every day. But the welding portion was very concerning. We knew we could keep up the speed as long as we had enough welders, but manually welding that kind of quantity is risky, especially for something that’s going on a production vehicle,” Ham lamented.
As he and his welding lead started planning out the details, the concerns about keeping up the welding speed grew more dire. With every step, this job started to look like it had all the signs of being a shop-killer.
This led to some serious brainstorming. Ham knew there had to be a way to fulfill the order on time without overtaxing his shop and losing money. That’s when he stumbled on BotX, a welding cobot supplied by Red-D-Arc Welderentals. Grimsby, Ont.-based Red-D-Arc is a welding consumables distributor that also rents out welding equipment, mostly hand-held welding gear and the required accessories.
But a few years ago, Red-D-Arc (which began as a Canadian-owned company but is now owned by Airgas, a division of Air Liquide) began looking to add weld automation to its list of rental options. Up until then, the company considered weld automation a non-starter—the process was far too complex and required users with substantial experience and skill. It was simply not a good fit, because it would result in significant levels of service to offset the complexity.
That was the case until Joe Holloway discovered Hirebotics in Nashville, Tenn., a company which offered one product: the BotX welding cobot and its programming software.
Holloway, who is senior vice-president, international for Red-D-Arc Welderentals and Red-D-Arc Weld Automation, was immediately interested, specifically in how easy the software made programing a welding path for an inexperienced person.
“When we met Hirebotics, I got excited because it was such a good fit for what we wanted to do, and what they wanted to do,” said Holloway. “They had no welding experience but great robotics experience. We had no robotics experience but lots of welding knowledge and customers. It couldn’t have been a better fit.”
What made this particular piece of welding automation so intriguing was the control software. Not only was this cobot programmable from any smartphone or tablet, but the whole software suite sat on the cloud. This was a gamechanger because it allowed for rapid virtual support, a development that made this particular welding automation package rentable. No company could afford to rent automated welding equipment to a novice welder if it meant having to constantly send technicians to someone’s plant to solve basic issues.
“Before discovering this cloud capability, we just never thought we could properly support a rentable welding automation solution,” says Holloway. “With BotX, 95 per cent of the issues that come up, we take care of without visiting the customer.”
“Users send us a message through the app, including pictures or videos, and we have 24-7 support. Most of these are solved within minutes. If they need more help, we can download the welding program they created, test it on a robot in our facility and see what's going on,” says Holloway, who cites examples such as when the robot arm gets put in an awkward position by the path, or operators put the BotX’s “wrist” in a bad spot to properly complete the weld. “This is what made the technology rentable. We can just fix the path and upload the new program right to their system, and off they go,” he says.
Back in April, when Paragon reached out to Red-D-Arc asking about the BotX, it didn’t take them long to realize this was a perfect application for a welding cobot.
“After the initial call, [Paragon] sent me a 3D CAD/CAM image with dimensions and I immediately knew this was perfect,” says Dave Miraglia, Red-D-Arc’s Welding and Weld Automation Specialist. “This was right at the beginning of the COVID 19 pandemic. Everyone was locked down, everyone was fearful. Typically for an application like this we would invite them to our location because we have a BotX set up and itʼs easy to demonstrate. But in this case that wasn’t an option, so we suggested that we bring the demo to their shop at our expense.”
With most types of industrial machinery, bringing a demo unit to someone’s facility is unheard of, simply because it often takes weeks of preparation and setup before a machine can start doing its thing. But the BotX is a different beast.
Miraglia and a technician shipped out the machine a few days early, and then arrived at Paragon to set up the system at 8 am. Astonishingly, by 2 pm that same day, the two Red-D-Arc reps and Paragon’s welding lead were already producing parts.
“Red-D-Arc gave us a very reasonable price to rent it for our production run, so we told them to bring it over because we needed to test it out,” says Paragon’s Ham, who was surprised when only a couple of technicians arrived to hook it up. “We had already dropped the power line and internet line before they arrived, but I honestly didn’t believe when they said it would be running so quickly,” Ham says, confirming that that by the end of that day, they were making parts.
“We couldn’t believe it. Those three guys (two from Red-D-Arc and Paragon’s top welder) working together were able to weld parts by the end of the day. We still had to tweak the programing a bit to optimize it, but within a day we were able to weld these parts and within the week we were running production parts. They said it would be like this, but we weren’t sure if we believed them.”
For Paragon, it was a pleasant surprise. The company manufactured and shipped it’s promised 50,000 pieces with no quality issues because the cobot was very consistent compared to manual welding. Ham was so happy with the results he ended up buying the whole system outright after the initial rental period.
“The cobot was so easy to set up, just plug it in and program it. The app is very easy to use, and you don’t have to be a welding expert to program it. It was a very positive experience, and the support we got from Hirebotics and Red-D-Arc was phenomenal,” beamed Ham, who has not just fulfilled an emergency order but added significant capacity and a new service offering to his company.
The rapid start-up is one of the main advantages of a cobot package. Unlike most industrial robots, cobots don’t move quickly enough to cause injury if they strike a nearby human, so no need to find the space to erect large enclosures that protect workers. And its small footprint means a company of any size can easily receive and install one.
In Paragon’s case, the package was a standard one, consisting of a four square-foot welding table, the actual cobot, which comes from Universal Robot, a couple of mounting accessories and cables, the control box, and the end effector to hold the torch.
For most applications, the BotX uses the Miller XMT 350 MPA pulse. Customers with thicker material use the Miller XMT 450, because, as Holloway says, “it has a little more horsepower.” Customers can choose a single table system or add a second table. The robotic arm will be positioned between the two tables so when the cobot cell is welding on one table, an operator loads and unloads parts on the other table, then cycles back and forth between the two tables. Currently MIG welding is the only option available, but users are not restricted to solid wire.
It’s best suited for welding mild steel and stainless steel. Airgas, along with parent company Air Liquide, developed welding recipes that are built into the software. The user would select the type of steel, the thickness, weld type (i.e.: butt weld) the type of wire being used, the type of gas, and the recipes give them starting parameters. Those recipes are always being updated based on what users have done and what they are looking for. With the cloud connectivity, once a new recipe is devised, everyone using the system gets access to it through the software.
And now that Paragon has finished the emergency order that started this journey, Dave Ham has plans for using the welding cobot a whole lot more often.
“It was cheaper to rent this than hire the subcontractors for our order. Even though the hourly rate was much higher, ultimately, I got more out of it,” says Ham, who says the BotX system has opened up a lot of potential growth for his company.
“This means we now have a new service for clients, and a new line of revenue. We are known mostly as a stamping shop, not as welders. So, this is a new potential revenue stream and a new opportunity. It was well worth the investment. And it didn’t steal any jobs, because I never would have hired additional welders for a temporary job like this. But our two welders will do their best work now, and we will use this welder to handle the more tedious production runs.” SMT