On the morning MT Solar’s brand-new cobot welding tool arrived at the company’s Charlo facility in rural Montana, anticipation had been building for some time. “It made for
a very interesting first few moments with the robot,” says Travis Jordan, owner and president of MT Solar. “The robot shows up on the truck, and, of course, I’m excited about it. I walk out of the office and I have employees already cutting shrink wrap off the robot and getting ready to set something up. I was like, ‘Hang on! I want to play!’ We had production parts running that same afternoon.”
Those first production parts were the culmination of a process that had begun some months prior as MT Solar was scrambling to deal with seasonal labor shortages. One day, one of MT Solar’s operators handed the owner a news article on welding robots.
“He said ‘I really think you should look into this. It would be a good solution for our team,’” Jordan recalls. “And I thought, ‘Well, if one of the welders is saying I need to look into robotics, there is a reason I should look into it.’”
MT Solar experiences a 300 percent jump in demand for its solar mounting products every summer, but every year is the same. It’s difficult to find skilled welders to handle the seasonal uptick – and especially so based on the company’s rural location.
Inspired by the operator’s suggestion, Jordan researched conventional welding robots, but found them inflexible and best suited to huge batches of the same item. Considering the company makes many types of mounting parts, often in high-mix/low-volume batches, a flexible solution was crucial.
Jordan explains: “We have many products that go together – think of us as a ‘solar Ikea,’ if you will – where all the pieces have to be assembled in the field. If we don’t have all the other parts that go with it, we can’t ship anything.”
The cost of conventional automation is compounded by the hassle associated with programming and setup. Jordan and the team at MT Solar needed something that would be quicker and easier to deploy.
“At first it might sound like a good idea to use traditional robots, but with the time and resources to get them up and running and programmed, it wasn’t a route we wanted to take,” he says. “Conventional robots aren’t very flexible. They can’t handle a mixed bag. The envelope is too small. Or the fixturing can’t be manipulated properly, and the cost will have gone through the roof.”
He also added that the company preferred a solution that wouldn’t require safety guarding and that existing operators could handle.
When MT Solar discovered Universal Robots, the paradigm changed. “The big difference is the ‘collaborative robot approach’ of being able to work with the robot and it being
so teachable and easy to run,” Jordan says.
While traditional welding robots require safety cages and can look “kind of like a nightmare,” cobots offer safe human-robot collaboration in close proximity without fences, Jordan notes, further increasing the appeal of cobot welding solutions.
“When I zoomed in and discovered the Vectis cobot welding tool [a ready-to-weld UR+ certified application kit powered by Universal Robots’ UR10e cobot], it became obvious that this combination was the right way to go,” he says. “My guys can work right beside the cobot as it is moving and welding. They can have their hood down and be right there, changing parts out with no safety guarding and no concerns about safety. They’ve been very comfortable working with it.”
Josh Pawley, co-founder of Vectis Automation, says his company initially faced some skepticism around cobots and welding. “There’s been a stigma that cobots can’t go into heavy industrial environments, but what our customers are saying and seeing is that’s not true,” he says. “They are welding thin-gauge materials, all the way down to 16 gauge, and materials all the way up to 1/2-in. and thicker. Cobots are meant for industrial environments and they can bring the benefits of DIY ease of use, flexibility, a smaller footprint and a lower all-in cost to shops of all sizes.”
He adds that the Vectis cobot welding tool and UR10e cobot, when compared to traditional robotic welding cells, can be 25 to 40 percent less with freight, time to production, training, setup, installation and commissioning factored in.
MIG welding in minutes
MT Solar’s implementation of the Vectis cobot welding tool and UR10e cobot is based on extensive human-robot collaboration. Operators set up the cell with jigs, supply the parts and program the system through an intuitive 3-D interface directly integrated on the cobot’s teach pendant through Vectis’ URCap software plug-in. The pendant includes a full weld library developed by Vectis Automation, providing standard settings for common welding jobs, including pattern and tack tools.
“I am by no means a certified welder,” Jordan says. “I’ll just grab any of the guys out of the shop that are welders, and I’ll say, ‘Okay, I’ll run the pendant. You go ahead and run the torch and put it where you want it. Where do you want the weld to start, where do you want it to stop, what angle do you want it to do?’ And we’ve thought through some very advanced welds.”
The DIY programming complete, the cobot autonomously runs a full MIG welding cycle. The UR10e welds six to eight parts in each cycle. Typically, these are small parts, including lock collars, beam clamps and weld nuts. The cobot welds these in a predefined order and completes four to 12 parts per run with no batching.
When it has completed its welding tasks, operators can reload parts and restart the system, if required, or quickly program
a new welding job with fresh parts. The cobot is responsible for welding specific lists of parts every 38 minutes. Operators work collaboratively with the cobot, loading and unloading during cycles, maximizing the 51-in. reach of the UR10e cobot arm to cover multiple different fixtures.
“The best thing about the system is that you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to use it,” says Mike Gillin, MT Solar’s operations manager and a certified welder. “I’m a welder by trade, but I didn’t know anything about robots, and I’m not very computer-savvy. Curiosity attracted me to the robot, and I was really surprised at how easy it was to figure out.”
Human welding can accommodate – and introduce – a lot of variance, he adds, especially when it comes to monotonous work and relying on the ‘calibrated thumb.’ “We’ve built up to 7,500 small parts over a winter. That’s a lot for an operator to sit and do day after day; we can tell where they start to get sick of it and parts end up being scrapped.”
The cobot welder, however, doesn’t grow old of monotonous work and has, therefore, taken over those undesirable welding tasks at MT Solar.
Meanwhile, Vectis Automation’s flexible financing and rent-to-own options enabled MT Solar to test out the entire system without the financial commitment from the outset. “This is a system that I can rent or lease for a very short period,” Jordan says. “I can afford that. If it doesn’t work, I’m not saddled with the thing. That made it really easy for us to get started.”
The tangible ROI of the system is clear, since it adds another welder to the team, he adds, which provides “a clean one-and-a-half to two-year ROI just on hard-number labor savings.” The intangible ROI is “probably even more valuable,” Jordan notes, due to the cobot’s net improvement of the shop and a “far-reaching impact on customers and employee morale.”
For Jordan, the system offers the repeatability that manufacturers crave and helps MT Solar maintain consistent product quality.
“Our customers are always excited when we tell them, ‘Hey, that part was welded on a robot.’ It’s high quality and looks exactly the same as the last one,” Jordan says. “Furthermore, the consistency and flexibility of the system enables MT Solar to compete with large corporations. Having a robot that can quickly be transitioned to different jobs and tasks is paramount to our success. It allows us to combine industrial quality and scalability with the innovation and nimbleness of a small company, which we think is an extremely powerful combination.”
MT Solar plans to acquire more cobots soon for new tasks such as manipulation of heavy and larger parts, which will also alleviate some of the more difficult manual work performed by employees. As operations manager Gillin puts it: “We have a shop full of people that will come up with ideas just based on their exposure to it.”