Securing skilled welders to maintain productivity continues to be a critical challenge for every manufacturer and job shop in the nation. The supply of available labor willing to be skilled at welding is shrinking dramatically. According to the American Welding Society, there are 200,000 open welding jobs presently, and that number will double by 2023. With these concerns in mind, more and more companies of all sizes are looking to robotics for their welding operations.
There are many misconceptions about welding robots based on science fiction and decade’s old knowledge from the robotics world. Today’s welding robots and welding power supplies are leaps ahead in design and capabilities, creating opportunities for improved productivity, easier operation and a faster ROI. New technology provides improved data collection to keep the robots operating efficiently and to verify weld outputs.
Here are a few common misconceptions and truths about robots for welding today.
Myth 1: Robots steal jobs
Truth: The biggest misunderstanding about robots is that they take jobs away from people. In reality, robotic welding helps improve productivity and helps companies grow, which results in the need to hire more people.
Additionally, many skilled welders are promoted to robotic programmers, where they spend less time under the hood and more time focusing on quality. Programming is often a better paying job, as well. This keeps people away from the hazards of welding such as fumes, fatigue and repetitive motion. By freeing up welders’ time, they can do more advanced and engaging tasks, and over time this results in lower turnover and higher morale.
Myth 2: Robotic systems are too expensive
Truth: When comparing the cost of a robot to the salary of a human welder, it may seem like a person is more cost effective. However, a standard welding system can have an ROI in as little as 12 months when a robot’s higher throughput potential and the many costs for a human welder beyond salary – such as benefits, injuries, work breaks, vacations, onboarding and training – are factored in.
Plus, a human welder is prone to the occasional error, which slows production for rework, creates scrap and wastes consumables such as gas and wire.
Standard weld cells continue to be a popular choice for robotic welding applications as a low-risk, low-cost introduction to welding. They offer a more favorable price because as pre-engineered base units, installation is quick and easy for a faster startup time from order placement to production.
Myth 3: Robots are too complicated
Truth: Robotic welding systems are easier than ever to install, program and maintain. Standard weld cells are simpler and less intimidating, which helps small and medium-sized shops jump into robotics for the first time. They can get up and running quickly.
Programming is much simpler. A robot teach pendant has only essential information on the screen, which gives operators the confidence to program the robot for the next job. Control panels are intuitive and often look much like the controls on the machine tools already in the shop. With the expansion of offline software, an employee can set up a program anywhere using a computer or tablet.
Welding power supply and equipment manufacturers have really upped their game in the past five to 10 years. In years past, welders spent a lot of time adjusting and testing settings before settling on the right program, which, in some cases, could take longer than the welding job itself. Today, power supplies have more built-in waveforms available so welders can easily choose parameters and start welding with an optimized program.
Welding power supplies can monitor and track real-time data on weld quality, welder settings and consumable status, among others. Notifications can pop up on a smart phone to alert the maintenance manager and identify specific problems so there’s less time spent on diagnostics.
Myth 4: Robots are only good for high-volume, simple tasks
Truth: With advances in controls, vision systems and touchscreens, along with accessories like tool changers and quick-change fixturing, welding robots can be switched over to a new job very quickly. Sometimes, this can be done automatically by the robot itself. Dual-zone weld cells can have two completely different weld jobs working in parallel with one or two robotic arms. Small and medium-sized shops find changeovers and small lot sizes are not a problem because machine efficiency increases by 30 percent or greater with robotics.
Myth 5: All integrators are the same
Truth: The design, manufacture and implementation of robotic welding systems successfully demands extensive automation experience and a deep understanding of welding processes. This all leads to a better experience and faster startup for the end user. Experienced robotic welding integrators have seen all kinds of installations, so they can streamline the process using decades of knowledge. An experienced integrator should be able to show examples of their past robotic welding installations.
An integrator with a long history in the business is well established and most likely to continue providing support for the life of the equipment. To ensure maximum uptime, an integrator must have a strong service department that includes 24/7 support anywhere in the country.
Integrators certified by the Robotic Industries Association have completed extensive training and are required to conduct thorough risk assessments on the entire process of every cell to ensure safety before installation begins. In addition, an integrator should assign a dedicated project manager. That person will be the single point of contact for all communication about every step of the design and installation process, so there are no surprises along the way.
A robot moves faster and more consistently than a human welder. It gets into hard-to-reach places, never tires and doesn’t make mistakes. Together, these benefits help manufacturers and job shops to be successful in a very competitive market.