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Eye on the prize

Pairing vision-based software with collaborative robots results in greater accuracy and productivity

The manufacturing industry has undergone massive changes over the past few years, largely driven by industrial automation. The good news is that industrial automation is helping to solve a number of manufacturing challenges: one of them being the labor shortage currently being faced by the welding industry.

Skilled welders are in high demand in the midst of many that are getting ready to retire. Adding insult to injury, fewer millennials are being trained to take over these skilled positions in order to fill the gap.

Novarc’s Spool Welding Robot (SWR) features a small footprint and long reach. 

At home, the American Welding Society predicts there will be a shortage of 400,000 welders by 2025. Worldwide, the situation is similar. It’s now accepted on a global level that the welding industry is facing a looming skilled labor shortage.

It’s challenges such as this that ultimately drive innovation. And automation may be one of the best examples. For instance, Novarc Technologies’ Spool Welding Robot (SWR) is a collaborative welding robot that is changing the status quo.

Robotic assistance

Although Novarc’s SWR is not designed to replace workers, it does increase overall productivity while also helping new welders keep pace with more experienced workers. A junior operator can work collaboratively with the robot, supervising the robot as it tackles and perfects the manual welding process. The SWR allows newer operators to easily, safely and efficiently perform more sophisticated welds that typically only highly skilled welders can achieve without the SWR. On top of that, the SWR keeps workers safe by allowing the operator to remain at a greater distance from the arc, fume and heat of the weld while also being close enough to the robot to monitor the weld as it is being laid down.

With no need to learn a special programming language, even junior operators can drive a 50 percent increase in production capacity with 30 percent faster travel speeds compared to the fastest semi-automatic welding process. The SWR also delivers a 400 percent increase in productivity versus SMAW and 90 percent arc-on time. These increases result in a 75 percent lower cost per joint versus SMAW. The SWR also provides supervisors with production monitoring, daily operations and log reports for future analysis, delivering scalable and repeatable artisan-quality welding.

Novarc’s NovEye camera is integrated with the SWR welding robotic arm and allows operators to monitor the weld as it’s being laid down.

Novarc’s SWR officially launched at Fabtech in 2017 and since then has quickly built a reputation for its precision and dexterity. To date, the SWR has been used by fab shops servicing industries such as oil and gas, shipbuilding and general fabrication.

Intelligent assistance

With the ever-increasing demand for productivity and better weld quality, the development of more sophisticated intelligent systems for the SWR was the next step. This was driven by feedback from Novarc customers who quickly realized that the payoff is real for manufacturing processes that adopt new technologies, particularly those focused on rapidly enhanced software.

The rise of machine learning along with the unprecedented computational power available today enable technologies that can process complex data sets to solve real-world manufacturing problems. These artificial intelligence (AI) systems are making a real difference in a multitude of industries, and the manufacturing industry is ripe to benefit from these types of sophisticated AI systems, as well.

A front view of the SWR reveals how the weld progress can easily be recorded and analyzed by the NovEye system.

Keeping with the cutting-edge trend, Novarc introduced its NovEye to the industry at Fabtech this past fall. The system integrates AI with machine vision, offering pipe and fabrication shops the benefits of higher levels of autonomy for SWR welders and less risk of defects in each weld.

NovEye is a weld monitoring system with a camera built into the SWR robotic arm. The camera processes each weld image and reduces the number of inputs required from operators. This means that SWR operators can now perform more welds, while spending less time on each weld but still producing better quality welds.

The system also offers adaptive control in a complete package by producing high-quality, full-penetration 1G root pass welds. Using algorithms developed by Novarc, NovEye can find the center of the root gap, measure the gap and detect the tacks in real time.

In addition, operators essentially get a clear view from inside the groove on the human machine interface (HMI) as each weld progresses in real time. Supervisors can view videos of all of their operators’ welds, giving them the opportunity to analyze in parallel with the weld parameters saved by NovData to improve weld quality.

Its AI process of deep neural networks combined with vast amount of data gained during the weld serves as an ideal example of how a machine can learn from experience – and in a way that no human operator can duplicate. The unique offering of AI and machine learning coming together is positioned to have a meaningful impact on the bottom line and is a major milestone for the shop room floor.

A side view of the SWR provides a clear picture of the HMI where the results of a weld are displayed in real time.  

On the job

Several companies, such as Seaspan’s Vancouver Drydock Co. Ltd., are taking notice. The general consensus is that Novarc’s SWR technology is of interest due to its increases in productivity and its ability to get new welders into the production process faster. Most importantly, its advances in AI and robotics are positioned to be very useful to business owners’ downstream operations.

Recently, Novarc’s SWR was used to assist in the installation of a ballast water treatment system at Seaspan. Using advanced control techniques, these cutting-edge, collaborative robotic systems – which could be adopted across Seaspan’s shipyards in the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island – allow pipe welding tasks to be completed faster in a more effective and efficient way.

With Novarc’s SWR, enhanced with NovEye, the company’s team of robotic engineers, software developers, welders and researchers continue their drive to solve industrial automation challenges. Through their innovative solutions, Novarc remains at the forefront of the Industry 4.0 revolution.

Novarc Technologies

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