In today’s marketplace, companies continue to automate portions, if not all of their welding operation. The reasons are many: to address a shortage of skilled labor, to improve quality, to decrease waste and rework, and/or to increase productivity — in short, to seek benefits that provide a competitive edge. Not all companies, however, are successful in the process. Those beginning without a well-thought-out roadmap risk losing valuable time during implementation and operation and may miss the full benefits provided by a robotic welding system.
Conversely, companies that begin with a careful examination of their welding needs and existing processes — and develop a detailed plan with clearly established goals — are more likely to achieve success. Planning should include an accurate assessment of parts, workflow and the current facility, as well as an evaluation of the potential return on investment (ROI).
Companies should not only look at current needs, but also consider future opportunities to determine the best robotic welding system to scale for potential growth or changes to products they may produce later.
Why Robotic Welding?
In an economy where orders are increasing and welding positions are hard to fill, robotic welding can help maintain or increase productivity. In a semi-automatic welding operation, labor accounts for approximately 70 to 85 percent of the total cost of welding a part. A robotic welding system can reduce that cost and increase throughput by completing the work of two to four people in the same amount of time — however, companies still require skilled welding operators to oversee the robotic cell.
In addition, the national and international marketplace has become increasingly competitive, with companies seeking contracts from any number and any size of business. Investing in welding automation can help set up a company on the path to compete at a global level.
Repeatability Is Key
When considering an investment in a robotic welding cell, companies should have part blueprints, preferably in an electronic format. Without a blueprint, the part likely won’t meet the basic criterion necessary to ensure repeatability during the manufacturing process.
A robotic welding system welds in the same place every time. When a part’s tolerances are unable to hold its position — if there are gap and/or fit-up issues — the company will simply be automating a broken process. This can increase rework or scrap.
If a company currently relies on its welding operators to compensate for fit-up issues, it will need to look upstream in the manufacturing process to establish consistency. What processes need to change so these welding operators send uniform parts downstream? Or, if vendors supply the parts, can they guarantee consistency?
Assess the Workflow
A streamlined workflow is one of robotic welding’s benefits. To achieve it, companies need to look beyond the weld cell, making certain the facility can accommodate a smooth flow of materials. It makes little sense, for example, to invest in a robotic welding system to increase productivity, but then place it in a corner where employees may have to handle each part multiple times.
There should be a consistent supply of parts to avoid moving a bottleneck from one area to another. It is also important to look at the expected cycle time of the robot. Can personnel supply parts to keep up with the demand of the robot’s cycle time? If not, the supply of parts, including where the company stores them and how it moves them, will need to be adjusted. Otherwise, a robot will sit idle waiting for components to come down the line.
Robotics or Fixed Automation?
There is no single welding automation solution that is best for every company. When a company is considering the investment, it should factor in the expected lifetime of the job, the cost of tooling and the flexibility the equipment offers.
Fixed automation is the most efficient and cost-effective way to weld parts with simple, repetitive, straight welds or round welds, where the part is rotated with a positioner. If a company wants to reuse the equipment when the current job ends, however, a robotic welding system offers more flexibility. A single robot can store programs for multiple jobs, so it may be able to handle the tasks of several fixed-automation systems.
There is a certain volume of parts that justify the investment of welding automation for each company. An accurate assessment of goals and workflow can help determine what that volume is. If a company makes only small runs of parts, robotic welding becomes more challenging. But, if a company can identify two or three components that can be automated, a robot can be programmed to manufacture those parts, offering greater versatility and boosting productivity. This may benefit even small companies that may not have significant volume of a single part.
Although a robot is more expensive than a fixed-automation system, it is important to consider the cost of the tooling before deciding between the two. Fixed automation systems can become quite expensive if they require extensive changes to retool a new part so it can be welded consistently.
Consider the Available Space
The physical footprint for a robotic welding system and the area needed for parts to flow into the welding cell is typically greater than that of a semi-automatic welding operation. The available space needs to be adequate for the robot, welding power source and other equipment. This helps minimize the need to customize products, such as cables, nozzle cleaning stations (or reamers) or the robotic MIG gun to fit the work envelope.
A company with less space can still make welding automation work. One option is to purchase fewer pieces of robotic welding equipment that are capable of performing multiple tasks, such as material handling or vision/scanning systems.
A third-party integrator can help determine whether a facility suits the installation of a robotic welding system. System integrators are knowledgeable about facility modifications, including important safety regulations that apply in a company’s region, country or state — in addition to those specified by OSHA and RIA (Robotic Industries Association).
Integrators and Equipment Selection
In addition to offering advice on facility modifications and helping a company select the right robot, a robotic systems integrator or welding automation specialist can:
- Help determine if parts are suitable for automation, and, if not, what is required to make them suitable
- Analyze the workflow and facility to identify potential roadblocks
- Analyze the true costs involved with the investment, including facility updates and tooling
- Determine the potential payback of the investment
- Help identify goals and develop a precise plan and timetable to achieve those goals
- Explain automation options and help select those that best fit the company’s needs
- Help select a welding equipment that has the flexibility to maximize travel speed, minimize spatter, eliminate over-welding, provide great arc stability and increase first-pass weld quality
Integrators can also help select additional equipment for the robotic welding cell, including positioners, tooling, the robotic MIG gun, welding wire and peripherals. Each item serves a distinct function.
The positioner turns, rotates or otherwise moves the part into an optimal position for welding. In many cases, this involves moving the part so that the system can weld in a flat position for optimal deposition efficiency. A positioner can also allow for coordinated motion between the robot and weldment.
The tooling holds the part in place during welding and is a critical component of a robotic welding system. The robot arm and robotic MIG gun travel a programmed path each cycle. If the weld joint is out of place because the part is misaligned, it can result in inadequate fusion or penetration and rework or scrap. It is important to design the tooling correctly upfront when investing in a robotic welding cell and monitor it for mechanical wear or heat distortion once it has been put into operation. This helps ensure consistent part fit up so that weld quality doesn’t suffer.
The robotic MIG gun should never be an afterthought when considering an investment in welding automation, nor should the welding wire. Both can have a significant impact on productivity and profitability. An integrator can help with the selection based on how the gun and wire perform in conjunction with the rest of the system’s components. The gun will be subject to intense heat and spatter, so it must be durable. It also needs to be the appropriate size to maneuver around the tooling and gain proper joint access.
Finally, peripherals, such as reamers, an anti-spatter sprayer and wire cutter are good options to discuss with an integrator prior to making the investment in welding automation. These devices can improve uptime and welding performance by keeping the welding gun consumables free of spatter, operators out of the weld cell and providing consistent wire stickout during welding.
Companies cannot simply purchase a robotic welding system and let it go. They need a welding operator or other employee skilled in robotic welding programming. This will likely involve additional training to upgrade his or her skill sets. The good news is, programming a robot today is much quicker than in the past. Simplified teach pendants, along with the availability of desktop programming, help expedite the process and reduce downtime. Despite the ease of programming, however, companies may need to alleviate some existing tasks to allow time for the employee to oversee the robotic welding cell without becoming overloaded with too many responsibilities.
Most robot OEMs offer a weeklong training course explaining how to operate the equipment. This course, followed by a week of advanced programming, is recommended when implementing welding automation.
Justifying the expense and calculating payback
If the personnel investigating the prospect of robotic welding determine it’s a good fit, they will likely need to justify the investment to upper management or an owner. Calculating the potential payback is essential. There are several steps to consider.
First, determine whether the volume of parts the company needs to produce requires the speed of welding automation. Remember, the key benefit of a robotic welding system is the ability to produce high volumes of quality welds or in smaller facilities to offer the flexibility to weld smaller volumes of multiple parts.
Calculate payback by assessing the current volume of semi-automatic parts and cycle times. Compare these to the potential cycle times of a robotic welding system. Again, an integrator or welding automation specialist can help. Establishing the comparison is critical to estimating the potential return on investment.
That said, even if a company will produce the same number of parts with a robot, it could justify the investment by the amount of labour it can reallocate elsewhere in the operation for jobs that boost production, eliminate bottlenecks or increase quality. For example, a company could utilize the skills of semi-automatic welding operators to complete challenging welds that are too complicated for a robot to manage.
It’s important to factor the bulk cost of shielding gas and welding wire when looking at the potential payback. While there is an initial cost for a shielding gas/manifold system, it can help optimize a company’s robotic welding capabilities in the long term by minimizing downtime for cylinder changeover. The same is true for welding wires. The larger drums — typically ranging from 500 to 1500 pounds — can further reduce costs in a robotic welding cell since they require fewer changeovers and often come with purchasing discounts.
Companies need to keep in mind that the benefits of robotic welding can be significant. However, those benefits come at an upfront price. Many companies, especially smaller ones or those that frequently change production lines, need a faster payback — no more than 12 to 15 months is common to justify the investment. If a company will have the same production needs for many years, it can typically justify a longer payback period. Management and owners should discuss their payback goals with a trusted robotic welding integrator as part of the assessment process.
Additional Benefits of Robotic Welding Systems
- With the right robotic welding system, companies can improve first-pass weld quality and reduce the amount of rework or scrap parts. Depending on the welding wire and mode used, the system may also minimize or eliminate spatter, which reduces the need to apply anti-spatter compound or perform post-weld clean up.
- A robotic welding system can reduce over-welding, a common and costly occurrence associated with the semi-automatic process. For example, if a company has welding operators who weld a bead that is 1/8-inch too large on every pass, it can potentially double the cost of welding (both for labour and for filler metals). Over-welding may also adversely affect the integrity of the part.
- Companies can reallocate skilled employees to other production areas to fill open positions and gain additional productivity and efficiencies.
- Welding automation can also provide a competitive advantage as it may be considered attractive to customers. The improvement in quality may prompt new customers to place orders or lead existing customers to increase their orders with the objective of growing their own businesses. Finally, robots are fast. They don’t have to weld all day to be profitable. That fact improves productivity and the bottom line by making the same number of parts as in a semi-automatic process in less time.