How to Make Robotics a More Feasible and Economical Welding Technology for Your Small to Mid-Sized Shop
Many small and medium-sized production facilities are looking to robotic solutions to address utilization and productivity issues in welding operations. After all, when demand for welded products dramatically increases, machines don’t just magically get more efficient and reliable. And, more than likely, these shops don’t have skilled workers beating down their doors, begging to be hired.
This situation has led to a very sad scenario for many companies. According to the American Welding Society, 40% of companies have declined new contracts due to insufficient availability of skilled workers.
To avoid these missed growth opportunities, more small and medium-sized companies are considering integrating robotics into their welding operations. Following are some common upsides for robotic welding applications:
- Robots are more reliable than people. After all, when was the last time a robot called in sick?
- A one-time investment in robotics can yield years of efficient and highly utilized welding cells. The return on investment (ROI) of an appropriately designed and programmed robotic welding application using the amount of increased throughput and utilization is typically very short.
- The quality of robotic welds are higher, particularly for simple, repetitive welding applications.
However, the following negatives and questions outweigh the positive aspects of robotic applications for small and medium sized manufacturers and keeps companies from pursuing robotic technology.
- Who is going to program the robots? That takes skilled labor, and if manufacturers had that, they wouldn't’t need the robots.
- Who has the time to ensure that the robots are programmed for high mix/low volume applications? Traditional programming takes a lot of time, and the number of different welding configurations proportionally increases this time.
- The incorporation of robotics into a welding cell can result in frustrated and resentful experienced welders. People don’t like having their jobs automated, and this discontent can be very detrimental to a small to medium sized company’s culture.
Yasakawa Motoman Robotics has created a solution to minimize the downsides of robotic welding applications by dramatically decreasing programming time. This solution also increases the simplicity of programming so an experienced welder can both program the robots and train others on its use, potentially in less time than it traditionally takes to simply program a robot.
Motoman’s new solution is called the Kinetiq Teaching tool. This tool reduced the time it takes to program a robot to do a task by making the programming process intuitive. While traditional programming either involves the use of a teach pendant or off-line programming, the Kinetiq Teaching tool utilizes an ICON-based touch screen in conjunction with a teaching pendant.
An experienced operator simply hand carries the robot into position, recording the home and various welding locations, pressing the appropriate touch screen command during each move and placement activity. Once all activities are recorded, the welder/programmer can review the trajectory, modify it as needed and proceed to weld.
According to Motoman, this method of programming reduces the amount of programming time by 20-50% and increasing return on investment for robotic welding cells. 2013 FabTech attendees with little or no programming experience were taught how to program a simple lap joint weld in minutes using the Kinetiq Teaching tool.
More importantly, experienced welders without any programming experience can use the Kinetiq Teaching tool to quickly program the robotic welders whenever product changeovers require new programming. They can also easily teach others how to program and supervise part loading to ensure greater efficiency and quality of product. This leverages the skills of current workers and eliminates the added expense and time associated with hiring new skilled workers.
Utilizing experienced welders in this way will also likely lead to increased buy in from these employees, who participate in the programming process rather than viewing it from the “outside”. There is also less need to hire skilled workers for high mix/low volume scenarios and allows experienced welders to focus on more complex welding applications.