As the economy rebounds, automation may hold the key for manufacturing’s future
February 1, 2011
Welding automation can be used even in high-mix, low volumes
A shrinking work force in the welding industry – as well as the manufacturing industry in general – has created a revival of sorts in automation technology.
According to recent statistics from the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), orders for new robots increased 34 percent in North America and 143 percent outside of North America during the first nine months of 2010 when compared to the same period in 2009.
In addition, automation systems that had been mothballed during the recent economic recession are now again being utilized.
“We are definitely seeing the recommissioning of welding robots that had been idle during the recent economic struggles,” explained Kevin Summers, automation manager for Miller Welding Automation. “We are also getting more requests for training and skills upgrading, and also for application support.”
Miller Welding Automation is a new business unit formed by the Miller Electric Mfg. Co., Appleton, Wis., and Panasonic Welding Systems Co., Rolling Meadows, Ill. It is the new distribution route for Panasonic robotic welding arms in North America, which are now combined with Miller’s welding equipment.
The automotive sector has been very active in deploying welding automation for a number of years. This industry has led, and even been groundbreaking, in a number of areas of automation. Now, however, thanks to improvements in the available hardware and software, other industries now can cost-effectively take advantage of the benefits of automation, particularly in welding applications.
“We now can bring to the table application-specific systems that weren’t available before,” said Summers. “We are no longer limited to the automotive industry, but can provide technology for marine production, heavy equipment manufacturing, and even military applications.”
Breaking down large structures into smaller, simpler, more manageable parts allows the fabrication of large structural components to be automated.
Robots also are no longer within the sole purview of the large Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers. According to Summers, they are now plausible for smaller job shops and fabrication shops to take advantage of robotics.
“Technology such as 3-D modeling and offline programming allows users to benefit from automation even when dealing with high-mix, low-volume parts,” said Summers. “You can redeploy a robot for the welding of multiple parts very quickly and easily. Because of the flexibility of today’s systems, it is now possible that three or four parts can make up the necessary volumes needed to justify the purchase of capital equipment.”
Robots always are reprogrammable. As work is gained or lost, the same equipment can be used.
“Automated welding equipment really gives you the ability to be flexible and adapt to the changing environment of your business,” said Summers. “Robotics and automation can be used to increase productivity; differentiate a shop from its competitors; and provide a consistent, quality part day in and day out.”
Being competitive on part costs usually means a reduction in labor content is necessary; this is what leads to the adoption of automation.
However, in robotic welding, the robot is not necessarily replacing a worker.
“When automation is added to a shop, it creates an opportunity for a skill upgrade for a worker that is already there. This involves taking an existing qualified welder and teaching them additional skills,” said Summers.
While the manipulation of a robot can be learned quite quickly, understanding the complexities of different welding processes is something that can be learned only with time and practice. In robotic welding it is crucial that the operator understands the kinematics of the robot, but also has a deep understanding of welding.
The principles of welding and the techniques that make welding successful, such as the proper torch angle, tip to work distance, wire feed speed, and volts and amps, do not change simply because a robot has been added to the equation.
“Having a worker that can transfer welding application knowledge to an automated environment is how you will see the real benefits of automation,” said Summers. “A top-tier welder can now set up an automated welding system, prove it out, and then move on to another project that requires attention. The robot, once trained, is the most repeatable process in the shop. And that will free up that welder to focus on other work.”
Fixturing is vitally important in a robotic welding system. It quite often is expensive, depending on the nature of the setup and how much dimensional tolerance needs held.
Fixturing should be designed in such a way to give the robot clear access to the welding joint. The fixtures and tooling also need to be able to hold the necessary dimensional tolerances. Since the robot will repeat its positional data to within 0.003 inch every single time, the tooling must hold true. If not, the robot might put down a perfect weld that is not on the joint because the part has moved.
“Tooling is one of the very first concepts that should be considered when designing a welding process,” said Summers. “There are almost an infinite number of ways to move a part through a system, and it can get quite complex, especially if it is going to be completely automated, with no manual intervention and clamping.”
For more information, visit www.millerwelds.com/automation.