Manufacturing philosophies aimed at reducing waste and streamlining operations have been around for a while. Lean manufacturing emerged in the 1980s and was successful at shortening lead times, increasing quality and reducing cost.
Today, Industry 4.0 follows in those footsteps, leveraging powerful software systems to connect otherwise disparate steps in the manufacturing cycle. The end goal is to inject added efficiency into an operation, ultimately creating what is now known as a smart factory.
While these manufacturing trends have enabled extensive data exchange for preventative maintenance, plant-wide transparency and remote management, something as simple as shielding gas consumption in welding operations had been low on the lean totem pole. Until now, that is.
Full disclosure: Optimization of shielding gas consumption hasn’t been totally ignored in past efforts to streamline operations. Welding equipment OEMs have produced various devices to manage gas consumption and flow rates, such as pressure regulator flow meters, mechanical diaphragms and other valves to produce the desired flow of gas.
But these devices aren’t connected to front office networks, meaning historical data isn’t available for analysis – one of the main benefits of Industry 4.0. Fortunately, the process of managing gas consumption recently got a much-needed shot in the arm.
A few years back, Abicor Binzel released its electronic welding regulator, or EWR, which was designed to electronically control gas delivery. As an electronic device, it was the first system of its kind, considering other available models were solely mechanical devices.
Although the EWR is able to deliver substantial gas savings, it is being eclipsed by the next-generation EWR 2. This recently released product can be integrated into a company’s software network to monitor and measure shielding gas usage in real time.
The EWR 2 uses an Ethernet and CAN interface to connect to a business’ local area network to collect gas usage data over any period of time. The connection also allows for the EWR 2’s parameters to be adjusted remotely through quick-action frequency valves that are able to regulate the flow of gas in relation to the weld current.
It all adds up
From an hourly or daily perspective, reducing the amount of shielding gas consumed might not put a dent in overall operational costs. But when you look at it from a monthly or annual perspective, savings can be considerable. Depending on the number of welding cells, savings from using the EWR 2 can rise into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. On average, customers can expect a 40 to 70 percent reduction in gas expenditures.
“To a certain degree, gas is just something that people use and generally overlook when trying to identify opportunities for cost efficiencies,” says Scott Huber, key accounts manager, sensors/robotics at Abicor Binzel. “They have air and gas leaks in their plants, but they don’t really pay attention to them. The EWR 2, therefore, is one of the biggest – and most surprising – avenues for cost savings currently available to welding operations. And it requires very little effort.”
In a typical manufacturing plant, there could be anywhere from 10 to 20 robots that consume up to $100,000 in shielding gas usage each year. In a larger plant, where hundreds of robots are installed, those savings could be in the million-dollar range as far as gas usage is concerned.
When talking to customers about potential savings, Huber’s favorite question is, “What would you do with an extra $250,000 in your budget?”
That’s because once you make an engineer more aware of shielding gas delivery and how it adds up, issues of waste are much easier to understand – and contain. Surprisingly, a lot of weld cells are running over what’s required for the specific welding process.
“A lot of things can cause these mechanical devices to be set way too high,” Huber adds. “It could be a variety of issues from something as simple as cross breezes to air tooling or even stickout problems that aren’t being managed properly. But, thanks to the way that the EWR 2 delivers gas and monitors amperage, we’re able to cleanly control the process and eliminate a lot of waste.”
Even for plant managers that fully understand the benefits of keeping a close eye on gas consumption, the EWR 2 can help. For these customers, Abicor can still come into a facility, assess the situation and help save a company up to 35 percent in gas usage.
In addition to the substantial savings that come with managing shielding gas in real time, weld quality also improves. The digitization of the EWR 2 gives users a tool to troubleshoot quality issues within a weld cell.
“When a weld defect is identified, data from the EWR 2 can help to pinpoint the cause,” Huber explains. “Monitors on the system gather information about amperage, gas flow and pressure and then time- and date-stamp that information. From there, plant managers can pull the data for the weld cell where the defect was found to discover that, for example, there was a pressure spike at 9:05 that was too large for the system to regulate. It’s a great troubleshooting tool.”
When the first generation of the EWR was released, it was based on a magnetic valve that managed the gas flow via electric controls. For the second generation, the company added a shunt to the power cable of the welding current that made it possible to not only control but also better monitor the welding current and deliver the gas in sync with it.
“The EWR 2 can monitor the outgoing pressure and flow and adjust it on the fly,” Huber says. “If the incoming pressure changes, the output can be adjusted as needed to maintain a desired and constant flow rate. When gas is flowing at a consistent rate, weld quality, of course, rises.”
To further explain the benefits of digital gas management, Huber uses the analogy of a garden hose. If you put a sprinkler on a garden hose, you get a nice “rainbow of water coming out of it,” he says. But as you add more sprinklers to the system, the flow of water to each one drops a little bit.
“The same thing happens with shielding gas,” he says. “So, if I have a plant that has one robot in it, the pressure drop is unnoticeable. If I have a plant with 100 robots, 20 of those robots could potentially strike an arc at the same time causing the entire system to drop in pressure. When the EWR 2 sees this type of pressure drop, it instantly responds and opens up the valve to maintain a proper flow rate across all of the welding cells.”
Whether a facility has 10 welding robots or 100, the system itself requires little training to install. And it can also be done incrementally. A controls engineer and an electrician can hook up the EWR 2 in short order. The unit itself only requires a supply into it and a supply out of it.
“You plug it in and you connect the shunt that meters the amperage,” Huber says. “It’s really that simple.”
In addition to the ease of installation, the EWR 2 doesn’t require any complicated programming according to the type of gas a customer uses. It’s preset for managing a variety of gases, including helium, argon, CO2 or even custom mixtures. Matt Sciannella, marketing manager for Abicor, says that ease of use has grown substantially since the first generation of the EWR – to the point where a user doesn’t even need to be on-site to make adjustments.
“With the first product you actually had to be right next to the hardware to adjust it,” Sciannella says. “With the EWR 2, if you need to adjust your gas flow, you can do it remotely from your desktop or even at your computer in your office a hundred yards away, provided you had the software package.”
The overall characteristics found within the EWR 2 perfectly embody the sophistication that is making its way into more and more of today’s manufacturing environments. As an Industry 4.0-enabled system, the EWR 2 is meeting the demands of an ever-advancing marketplace.
“When we first began work on the next iteration of the EWR, the goal was to be in step with the innovative climate that we live in,” Sciannella says. “Everything is about data acquisition, data monitoring and analysis, and then aggregating that information to make smart business decisions. We already had the hardware that was electronically oriented and proven to work. It was a logical step to make it an Internet-compatible device and to really try and offer something special to the market.”