With thousands of deployments under their collective belts, collaborative robots (or cobots) are proven platforms for automating industrial welding applications.
Early cobot welding systems tackled the low hanging fruit; light and simple, predominantly MIG- based welding applications that don’t require water cooling or other advanced features. These cobots still sell in large numbers today due to their low total cost of ownership (TCO), built-in safety features, small footprint, fast return on investment (ROI) and ease of use.
New features and capabilities are being added to cobot welders all the time, however, creating new, heavy-duty welding application opportunities for fab shops. As a result, today’s cobot welding systems make it easier than ever for companies of all sizes to automate more complex, high duty cycle welding tasks. Plasma cutting is now possible, for example. New water-cooled torches can cope with the higher temperatures created by high-amperage welding applications.
Heavy deposition? No problem. Hardfacing? Got it. And all while retaining the features that made cobot-based automation so popular in the first place.
So, what advantages do welding cobots provide over traditional welding automation? What are the main drivers for their adoption? And what can today’s welding cobots do that earlier versions could not?
The cobot advantage
As Matt Hendey, CEO and founder at THG Automation, puts it, the emergence of easy-to-use cobots has caused a “rewiring of how people think” about welding automation and automation in general. THG Automation has developed a cobot-based welding system that combines ease of use with high-end functionality.
“Traditional welding robots are a lot harder to manipulate than cobot welders,” Hendey says, who has decades of experience in traditional and cobot-powered welding automation. “The complexity of traditional welding robots means that there’s a massive difference in deployment times between traditional welding automation and cobot-based systems.”
Cobot welders, Hendey adds, also have a smaller footprint and provide easier scalability than complex traditional welding robot systems. Because of their built-in speed and force limiting safety features, cobots can be safely deployed close to humans without the need for additional safety fencing and guarding, following a risk assessment. This lowers TCO, speeds deployment and helps fab shops get their applications up and running quickly.
Cobots’ speed and force limiting features mean that cobots operate more slowly than traditional industrial robots and can handle smaller payloads. The continued rise of cobots shows that this limitation is more than offset by cobots’ versatility, ease of use, low TCO and other benefits.
The emergence of cobot-based welding application kits eases deployment further. These kits contain all the hardware, software and accessories required to get a welding automation cell up and running in a fraction of the time it takes to deploy traditional welding robots.
“With cobot welders, it’s possible to have your application running within hours of receiving the equipment,” Hendey says. “And because most cobot welders come with weld tables, with standard off-the-shelf tooling, end users can clamp their parts down to the table and start welding right away. In the old days, you had to make tooling for any kind of clamping solution.”
Moreover, due to their flexibility and ease of deployment, cobot welding systems provide a low barrier to experimentation, which enables innovation on the shop floor. Companies can quickly test the effectiveness of different configurations and find the best one for their requirements. By contrast, experimenting with traditional welding automation requires a lot more downtime and expertise.
In the absence of welders
The shortage of skilled welders is not a new phenomenon, but it has been made worse by the pandemic and macroeconomic factors. The latest numbers from the American Welding Society indicate a current shortfall of 85,000 welders in the United States alone.
For Josh Pawley, founding partner and vice president of business development at Vectis Automation, the numbers involved are “just mind-boggling.”
“Whether it’s owners, production managers or shift supervisors, you can tell there is pain in the calls that we get,” Pawley says. “I hear stories like ‘We had our VP of marketing on the shop floor welding yesterday.’ I’ve had calls from fab shop owners who are welding at night because they can’t find people. It’s pretty shocking.”
Fortunately, cobot welders of all types provide a cost-effective, low-barrier way to overcome the risks presented by welder shortages. And, because today’s cobot welders can take on a wider variety of tasks, they provide even more opportunities to mitigate labor issues.
The ergonomic climate
As indicated by the relatively high rates of illness-related absenteeism among welders compared to other jobs, industrial welding is physically challenging work. Cobots address these ergonomic issues in a direct fashion by taking over physically strenuous welding tasks. The result is improved ergonomics for welders and the freedom to focus on more interesting, higher-value welds.
As THG Automation’s Hendey notes, the mental challenge involved in performing repetitive welds can be worse than the physical challenge: “For me, the bigger issue isn’t necessarily the ergonomics, but the repetitiveness of some welding applications. Welding is fun if you’re good at it. But even if you’re good at it, welding isn’t fun if you’re doing a lot of the same thing all day long.”
Cobot welders address this issue directly by taking on these uninspiring, repetitive welds, with a resultant boost in morale, quality and productivity.
Welder shortages are compounded by supply chain issues and global economic uncertainty. So much so, Vectis’ Pawley says the main driver for cobot welder adoption today is business continuity rather than competitive advantage.
“At the Fabtech trade show last year, I asked a medium-sized shop owner ‘How’s business?’ and he answered, ‘The only thing I have right now is cash and orders that I am struggling to fill.’ That captured the current conditions being faced by many fab shops. Cobot welders are helping people meet their current backlog and production demand without pulling their hair out.”
Adoption is driven more by business continuity than business opportunity – at least for now. But once the current “supply chain craziness” settles down, cobot welders “will allow folks to be more competitive through faster lead times, lower costs and improved quality,” explains Pawley.
Heavy duty, the easy way
High-amp-rated welding applications require heavy-duty hardware and water-cooling systems for the torch. Early cobot welding systems were air-cooled and couldn’t handle the demands of such heavy-duty applications, but the latest cobot welding systems can handle these tasks with ease. Vectis’ heavy-duty configuration of its Cobot Welding Tool, for example, comes with a water circulator and cooling radiator that pumps water through a water-cooled torch and is paired with a welder that can handle high amperages at high duty cycles (e.g., 450 amps at 100 percent duty cycle).
Strictly speaking, “heavy duty” is defined by amperage and duty cycle. However, as a rule of thumb, Pawley says air cooling will usually suffice when using welding wires up to 0.035 in. because typically that wire won’t pull more than 300 amps. Applications involving 0.045 in. or 0.052 in. or even larger wires can easily start pulling more than 300 amps, however.
Typically, 0.045 in. or larger wire is the point at which Vectis recommends implementing its heavy-duty water-cooled configuration, so that the system isn’t hamstrung by amperage or duty cycle limits on heavy-duty welding applications.
Hardfacing, the metalworking process where harder or tougher material is applied to a base metal, is also now possible using the latest cobot welding systems. Switch out the tooling and accessories and plasma cutting is also possible. THG Automation, for example, recently unveiled a cobot-powered TIG welding system to add to its portfolio.
The complexity of welds that cobot welders can handle is on the rise, too. For example, Vectis’ system comes with software that enables complex cuts on 3-D shapes and large structures for a fraction of the cost of a tube laser. Multi-pass welding, through-arc seam tracking, touch sensing and other tools enable welding applications that weren’t possible a few years ago on the cobot platform.
At the same time, compatibility with welding supplies has diversified. Early cobot systems tended to focus on a small list of welders. Today’s leading-edge cobot welders can handle Miller, Lincoln and Fronius with ease.
Vectis’s cobot welder, for example, provides software and control packages for all three supply types. “Our expert team can recommend a welding supply based on the customer’s specific applications,” Pawley says. “But the final decision rests with the customer, some of whom will prefer a particular brand. We can meet all needs.”
Payback on THG Automation’s cobot welder is typically around 22 months based on traditional payback calculations, Hendey says. However, the increased capacity and ability to meet customer deliveries, coupled with higher productivity on complex weldments and the resulting margin dramatically increases ROI.
“Running costs are consumables and the cost of energy,” he explains. “We’ve designed our system to be easy to use, which eliminates integrator costs and simplifies deployment. In addition, our cobot welding system can run for years without any additional maintenance except for replacing the welding consumables. So, cost of ownership is mostly frontloaded with the capital expenditure.”
On average, companies that deploy the Vectis Cobot Welding Tool see a three times productivity boost, Pawley says, mentioning that this result will vary. One customer went from 150 parts a day manually to 760 on a cobot while another went from a 70-min. manual cycle time to 9-min. cycle time. ROI varies too, by customer and application, but ranges from as low as a few months up to at most, two years.
For companies of all sizes
Cobot welding systems are synonymous with ease of use and fast deployments. Initially, this made welding cobots especially attractive to small and mid-sized companies. But with additional capabilities being added all the time and order backlogs impacting companies of all sizes, cobot welders are finding traction at larger companies, too.
“We still ship a ton of our original standard-duty, air-cooled configurations for light and medium welding applications,” Pawley says. “Labor shortages and economic conditions are universal, however, and as we have grown, we have found that large enterprises need our solution just as much as smaller companies. Even companies with traditional automation solutions are deploying our systems. Our portfolio of application-specific configurations enables cobot welding to boost fab shop productivity for manufacturers of all types and sizes.”