Automation is in high demand today as evidenced by the growing number of manufacturers that continue to add robotic advancements and technologies on their factory floors. Collaborative technologies that allow humans and robots to safely work together is one area that is garnering much attention.
Collaborative robots, or cobots, are being developed for more areas of manufacturing as new applications arise. According to a new report by Grand View Research Inc., the global
collaborative robots market is expected to reach $6.77 billion by 2025. The growing interest of small and medium-sized enterprises, owing to the low price of cobots, is projected to increase the deployment over the forecast period.
The application of cobots in industries such as automotive, furniture and equipment, metal and machining, plastic and polymers, and food and beverages is expected to drive the market growth over the projected period. The increasing focus of OEMs and consumers on the safety of operations, such as gluing and welding, pick and place, and machine tending, is expected to propel cobot growth.
According to the report, as of now, these robots are mostly being utilized for machine tending, packaging, material handling and assembly tasks. However, the base of their application is expected to expand considerably in the years to come.
Recently, part of the cobot market has expanded to include welding. In fact, a partnership between Universal Robots (UR) and Arc Specialties Inc. led to development of a cobot-assisted, interactive welding system known as the SnapWeld collaborative robot welding package. Brent Lindell, sales manager with Arc Specialties, explains the impetus for the partnership.
“The American Welding Society predicts a shortage of about 400,000 operators in 2024 due to a lack of incoming skilled workers,” Lindell explains. “We quickly recognized that UR makes programming quicker and easier than any other robot maker on the market. We knew that if we could develop a welding package for the UR product, we could make robotic welding more affordable, easier to operate and extremely simple to program. This became the perfect partnership between a collaborative robot manufacturer and an experienced welding integrator.”
With SnapWeld, small job shops struggling with the budget, programming and space requirements of traditional welding robots now have an alternative solution. The product can be easily and flexibly deployed in existing manual welding booths, eliminating the need for costly new robotic cells.
The SnapWeld package features an integrated UR cobot that is programmed with a teach pendant. The welding system is comprised of a Profax wire feeder and water-cooled torch, enabling welds up to 600 amps. Torch brackets, cables and hose packages are all included. The system is also touted as being easy to move throughout a shop.
“The UR robots comply with all requirements for collaborative operation,” Lindell says. “And, the risk assessment of the complete robot installation must conclude that risks are sufficiently reduced using the collaborative safety features. In regard to the SnapWeld product, our goal wasn’t that the robot and the operator would be working together, but that the collaborative functionality would allow for simple integration into potentially small workspaces with no need for safety guarding.”
The SnapWeld product features seamless hardware and software integration through the Universal Robots+ platform.
“Typically, the robot manufacturers decide what features will go into their robots,” Lindell says. “But not with the UR product. We get to decide what features are important. The Universal Robots+ program allows us to design and develop our own welding software/hardware for the UR product line. This hardware/software package is known as a UR Cap. Caps are to robots like apps are to smartphones. Once a UR Cap is tested and approved, anyone can access this cutting-edge technology through the online showroom.”
Settings include features such as wire feed speed, burnback time, gas flow time and crater fill time with instant feedback on welding volts and amps. In the near future, functionality will be expanded with the introduction of weaving, height control, seam tracking and touch sensing.
Another major benefit of SnapWeld is its simplified programming. That simplicity is enabled by direct software integration into UR’s own programming environment through the UR platform that allows operators to program advanced settings directly on the teach pendant. With the product’s “hands-on” teaching method, the operator programs the robot by simply taking the robot arm and moving it to the start and stop positions.
One unique process feature is stitch welding. While other welding solutions require operators to program the start and stop point of each welding stitch, SnapWeld lets the operator teach the robot the start and stop points as well as the number and length of the stitch welds by moving the robot arm through way points. The robot moves along the start and stop path, welding only during the specified stitch areas, significantly reducing the programming time.
“UR has created an easy-to-use interface for programming that allows the operator to move or ‘jog’ the robot by simply grabbing the arm and manipulating its position by hand,” Lindell says. “Traditional robots do not offer this simplified programming method and robot moves are made by picking up the teach pendant, pushing a few buttons and jogging the robot to a position. We find that most users of the SnapWeld product will make the larger robot moves by hand and then use the robot pendant when necessary for fine tuning of a point.”
Other features include built-in circular interpolation and linear interpolation to make programming fast and easy. With circular interpolation, a circular robot path can be programmed using as few as three taught positions. Without this feature, the operator would have to program many small linear moves to create a circular path. The shorter the linear move the more accurate the circular path. Linear interpolation allows a 3-D path to be programmed using two taught points. The robot will automatically create a linear path between these two paths.
With its ease of use and ever-expanding list of features, the SnapWeld product is well-suited for a range of customers. Initially it seems ideal for low-volume, high-mix fabrication shops, allowing operators to manage robot programs and welding parameters on the fly. But it can also be a great fit for larger shops, as well.
“Imagine a large shop with multiple large, traditional robotic cells that needs to run a small batch of parts,” Lindell says. “In these settings, it may not be conducive to stop production on the robotic cells to fixture, program and run the small batch. Therefore, the SnapWeld product could easily become the portable solution that moves throughout the shop, completing these smaller tasks. And when the robot is not busy welding parts, it could be moved in front of a machining center to load and unload parts for a shift or two.”
This type of flexibility significantly strengthens its overall value on the shop floor. In addition to moving from one location to another, its ability to be adapted for other applications will help the SnapWeld package find broad acceptance in manufacturing facilities regardless of size.
“Repurposing a UR is as simple as removing and replacing the end of arm tooling,” Lindell says. “To transition it from a welding task to a material handling task, you would simply unbolt the welding torch and attach a gripper or an inspection system to the robot. A wide range of approved grippers and tools are available for just about every robot application one might need.”