Despite how ubiquitous welded products are in consumer and industrial environments, there is a significant shortage of welders available in the job market today. This shortage is projected to worsen in the future, as organizations such as the National Association of Manufacturers estimate that by 2024, 2.4 million manufacturing jobs will go unfilled. Those 2.4 million unfilled positions include a critical number of welding jobs.
The shortage isn’t sudden either: Baby boomers are retiring, and perceptions of manufacturing careers among America’s youth have been on a steady decline. For many companies looking to fill open positions and improve the skills and productivity of their current workforce, this challenge is compounded as they are already strapped for resources.
One potential strategy, which has already been recognized by many manufacturers, is to automate processes in the workplace. Over the past 40 years, programmers, engineers and manufacturers have developed a dizzying array of complex solutions to automate tasks. Unfortunately, significant barriers to entry for automating the welding process exist, and, to add insult to injury, for low-volume, high-mix welding shops, traditional automation fails to provide tangible solutions.
Welding jobs snapshot
Welding is a large, multifaceted sector of the industry – and the economy. In the metals joining sector, hundreds if not thousands of different materials and filler metals are used in a multitude of processes. MIG welding alone includes short circuit transfer, globular, spray and pulse welding processes, just to name a few.
Welding companies may be organized along a spectrum of how likely they are to utilize traditional automation. Major users of automation likely create a low mix of parts and weld a high volume of highly repeatable objects. Operating at high volumes typically affords these companies the ability to invest greater amounts of capital at once. This enables them to develop custom tooling, workcells and automation departments to maximize the use of any automation brought into the operation.
Unfortunately, the cost of a workcell that welds, fixtures and assembles large parts with enough utilization to pay off the investment in a timely manner prices out many high-mix shops. Knowing this, how can low-volume, high-mix shops invest in ever-advancing technologies and reap the rewards of automation historically reserved for narrow segments of the welding economy? An understanding of robots beyond their impact on product development can reveal these opportunities.
Automation traditionally generates higher quality through precise fixturing and low variance, which associates investments in CNC benders, punch presses, laser cutting machines, etc. Higher quality parts give rise to more repeatable processes, not only with respect to making parts, but also downstream at sub- and final-assembly stages that may or may not also be automated. A key benefit of automated welding in these stages is consistent heat input and resultant predictable distortion, both of which make fixturing and assembly quicker to repeat at scale.
Today, higher quality parts and more repeatable processes combine to give rise to increased efficiencies throughout product development. Manual labor and time spent fitting up inconsistent parts decreases as does waste from overwelding and the overuse of excess filler metal and shielding gas. This is all happening while production output can be more precisely determined and maintained.
Lastly, automation facilitates a safer work environment by separating workers from hazardous materials, dangerous processes, and unsafe movements and payloads from the industrial robot itself. Automated workcells can be fully enclosed for fume capture resulting in clean air for all employees. Welding processes with intense UV light exposure risk skin burns and even blindness for employees, risks which now are mitigated by removing workers from exposure areas. Accidental injuries are reduced or eliminated by relegating manipulation of parts to automation. All this combines for a more pleasant, dignified experience of the workplace.
Barriers to entry into traditional automation exist beyond the flat cost of automated workcells however. Sales people for traditional robots start their pitch with two questions: How many parts are you making and what is your cycle time per part? Typically, an automation company knows what ratio of those two answers will result in a satisfying sale.
For large part manufacturers like Caterpillar, New Holland or John Deere, utilization may be measured as arc-on time and deposition rate with cycle times of hours or days. However, the determining factor to justify automation is how much metal a welding robot can deposit compared to a human in this time frame. With low-volume orders and part numbers, many shops will never produce a satisfying ratio.
A latent cost to automation often overlooked is the establishment, integration and maintenance of an automation department within a company, which often requires the recruitment of trained programmers, engineers and robot technicians.
Enter the cobot welder
Collaborative robots (cobots) are the Industry 4.0 answer to balancing the limits and possibilities of traditional automation, while focusing people at the center of work processes. Compared to traditional industrial robots that must be rigidly mounted to a workcell purposed with one task, cobots offer flexible deployment. Traditional robots can, of course, be repurposed, but it requires retooling, recalibrating and reprogramming.
A cobot, on the other hand, can flexibly be applied to several tasks on the same day. It can join metal parts in the morning, hold a part steadily in place for a worker to fixture in the afternoon and sort hardware using a vision system overnight. Incredibly lightweight for their size, the cobots from Universal Robots (UR) can be mounted to floors, walls or ceilings and are easily carted around worksites by a single employee.
Additionally, a team of robotics engineers and programmers is not required to maximize the utilization of a cobot. All the line workers in a welding shop join together to become the automation department for cobots, thanks to the cobot’s intuitive HMI.
Take, for example, the recent application of welding cobots at Processed Metal Innovators LLC (PMI) where UR’s UR10e cobot powers the BotX Welder developed by UR-certified system integrator, Hirebotics. Workers at the Wisconsin-based metal fabricator teach the BotX the required welds via the Hirebotics app on any smartphone or tablet utilizing welding libraries specifically developed for the BotX. Several applications can be stored for one cobot, and creating a new one is often accomplished by simply moving the cobot arm through the desired motions.
Cobots from UR can go from installation to programming to running applications full time in a matter of hours. At PMI, the BotX Welder was set up within two hours, and a half hour after that, was running its first program and aiding the company in its production of stamped and welded parts for heavy equipment, automobiles, appliances and more.
PMI does have traditional welding robots in house, but they require tooling fixtures that can take up to 16 weeks to build. Especially for small-run parts, PMI found that the fixtures weren’t cost-effective. PMI’s vice president of operations, Erik Larson, explains the difference with the collaborative BotX system.
“The tables that the BotX robot comes with include clamping systems and everything you need to be able to clamp your part on the table and shoot some pictures of it,” he says. “You have a little diagram of it and every time you go to put that program back in, you can set up your part the same as you did before. It doesn’t take a large or expensive fixture to do it. There’s no capital investment in it, and it’s just plug and play.”
In addition, any downtime on traditional robots could take up to two weeks to get a service tech to address. In comparison, the Hirebotics BotX system includes 24-hour service that responds with the touch of a button in the Hirebotics app.
Larson recognized immediately that the cobots free up workers to pursue more value-added tasks.
“We can now reallocate our existing manual welders to handle the larger, more profitable parts, while we’re still able to get the little parts done using the BotX,” he says.
At PMI, cobots work side by side with people without safety fencing or large disruptions to shop space. Applied like any other tool, the cobots’ humanlike speed and payload capacities maximize the productivity of human-machine pairing. Now Larson says, PMI “can quote work we haven’t been able to quote before. By the time we accept the PO, we can have a cobot ready to weld the parts before we even get the first order in the door.”
Larson has also found that the cobots could be an answer to closing both the skills and the demographics gap in manufacturing as they appeal to younger workers, who are often hard to hire and retain in manufacturing jobs.
“After we put the robots in and were looking to fill a position for a robotic and technology lead person, we found a lot of the younger employees were all interested in applying,” he says. “It’s a big hit for the younger generation who wants to be involved with technology and be able to work and program robots.”