Welding automation is no longer just for large manufacturers.
Increasingly, smaller shops are taking advantage of the productivity, quality and cost-saving benefits of implementing a robotic system. Gaining the most out of welding automation, however, isn’t a matter of chance. Careful planning and a keen attention to detail both play a role.
Welding automation offers numerous benefits for companies of all sizes — from improved productivity and weld consistency to lower costs for production, labor and materials. When implemented correctly, robotic welding systems also help companies gain a competitive advantage over those that have not made the transition to this technology. More than ever, smaller shops are beginning to make the investment in automation and realizing positive results.
There are, however, various considerations to make before adding a robotic welding system to the shop floor. Selecting the right system, assessing the available facility space and training welding operators properly are just a few factors that can help companies gain the best efficiencies and the best payback.
Benefits of robotic welding
Robotic welding systems offer consistency and repeatability that can lead to significant improvements in productivity and finished part quality. That better quality also helps reduce the time and money spent on rework. In addition, these systems can lower production costs by reducing waste and labor requirements. For example, a robot has the ability to lay down the same amount of weld metal each pass with limited supervision, eliminating the issue of over-welding and the associated filler metal waste and cost.
Such benefits translate to many applications in both large and small shops. Yet the investment in even one robotic cell in a smaller shop may result in welding automation taking over a higher percentage of the total welding output, for a potentially greater return on investment (ROI).
Likewise, while larger companies may have more resources to draw on when adding welding automation, smaller shops can potentially gain greater flexibility while adding automation. In some cases, the owner may frequently be on the shop floor, and employees may wear multiple hats. The outcome is a collaboration that can result in greater employee buy-in on the purchase and an innovative approach to gaining the best efficiencies. Still, a good rule of thumb for any shop considering robotic welding — small ones included — is to fully evaluate the welding operation and parts before making the purchase.
When considering welding automation, shops should ask the question “What are our pains?” By identifying goals before starting the process, the company can determine if welding automation is indeed the right solution. Those goals may include improved throughput, increased welding quality or simplified training for welding operators. Once a company identifies the challenges and goals, considering the following can help:
- Justifying expenses to management or ownership: Knowing the benefits robotic welding can provide in a specific shop can offer a better understanding of what the ROI expectations are. ROI estimates should consider the labor rate of each shop and how much time welding automation might save, as well as the ratio of machine uptime to downtime for part and fixture changeover. Some shops may have a single part with enough volume to justify a robotic system. In other shops, it may be necessary to combine multiple parts to get the needed volume for ROI purposes. In those cases, grouping by family of parts (like parts of different sizes, for example), can help improve efficiency and save on downtime for fixture changeover.
- Physical space and facility modifications: The robotic welding solution needed for a specific company may require a weld cell that is larger than the area available. The need to expand or modify the space to accommodate a welding automation solution adds to the costs and can greatly impact ROI, so it’s an important consideration to keep in mind.
- Part design: While parts don’t need to be perfect, they do need to be repeatable. If there is a gap in a part, it needs to be a repeatable gap so that it can be welded by the system the same way each time. When there is too much variability in the parts, it can lead to more downtime for adjustment or rework.
- Part workflow: The workflow for robotic welding will likely be quite different than the workflow for semi-automatic orders, which can be changed more easily and produced in smaller batches. A robotic system typically produces three to five times the number of parts in the same amount of time and requires the throughput to be more consistent throughout the entire process.
- Weld cell supervision and training: This is one of the most important factors to operate a successful robotic welding operation — especially for first-time users and smaller shops where technicians may not be in-house. Unfortunately, it is also often one of the most overlooked factors. The initial training on a robotic welding system is critical, and many welding manufacturers offer on-site training to help with installation, basic programming and user training. This training can help prevent common issues that keep the system from functioning properly, such as incorrect liner and/or gun installation. It is also important to conduct ongoing training. The features and functions of robotic welding cells can change, so it’s important to remain up to date on them to make the most out of the investment.
Advancements can make it easier
There are technologies and solutions available that make it easier and more feasible for smaller shops to add welding automation. Pre-wired and pre-assembled robotic weld cells are one such example. In fact, some preconfigured systems can be up and running within a matter of hours.
Offline programming can also provide benefits for companies. It allows shops to program parts and design fixtures before the welding actually takes place in the weld cell. This feature offers the ability to remove any mistakes before material is cut for fixtures and can reduce machine downtime for setup. The result is greater uptime and throughput that is consistently high.
Several options in robotic MIG gun technology and peripherals can also help increase productivity and reduce downtime for consumable changeover, further increasing the ROI for smaller shops. A robotic cleaning station (or reamer), for example, removes spatter from front-end consumables without the welding operator entering the cell. This spatter removal helps consumables last longer and reduces downtime for maintenance.
Front-loading liner systems available for some robotic welding guns are also designed to minimize downtime and reduce issues with wire feeding. Proper installation of the liner is critical to its ability to guide the wire through the power cable and up to the contact tip. Improper liner installation, which includes trimming the liner too short or having a liner that is too long, can lead to a number of issues, including birdnesting, poor wire feeding and debris in the liner. Front-loading liner technology can save significant time in changeover, by allowing operators to easily change the liner at the front of the gun without removing the gun from the robotic system. Some front-loading liners also have a spring-loaded module to accommodate for up to 1 inch of forgiveness for improperly trimmed liners.
Become more competitive with robotic welding
Increasingly, the positive impact of welding automation is helping smaller shops become more competitive. To gain the benefit of improved quality and productivity, and to reduce costs, companies should always plan out their robot purchase and implementation carefully. A trusted equipment manufacturer is a good resource to help.