Siouxland Fabricating Inc. provides custom fabrication services, including laser, flame and plasma cutting, bending, assembly and welding from its facility in Rock Valley, Iowa. The small town of 4,000 isn’t the easiest location to find skilled welding talent.
“Welding has become one of our bottlenecks,” says Toby Boogerd, chief technical officer at Siouxland Fabricating. “It’s hard to hire welders in our area. It’s a skill that we need here, and it always seems like we’re short a welder.”
Based on experience, it was clear that traditional welding robots wouldn’t be able to meet Siouxland Fabricating’s requirements.
“Traditional welding robots require a lot of fixturing, programming and tweaking between our robotic programmer and welder,” Boogerd says. “They also take up a lot of floor space. We were looking for something that was simple that we could quickly integrate in the shop and start making parts.”
He adds that Siouxland Fabricating wanted its welders to spend more time fabricating and putting parts together and less time laying beads. “We really wanted the robot to mimic what a welder was capable of doing, from circular welds to butt joints.”
The price of traditional welding robots was also a significant deterrent.
“You’re usually at easily $100,000 to start with traditional robots,” Boogerd says. “By the time you talk with salesmen, travel somewhere to look at the machines, get the machine in the building, the costs might even end up at $200,000 to $300,000 before you’re done.”
Having already successfully deployed a Universal Robots UR10 cobot in a stamping application, Siouxland Fabricating was familiar with the performance, usability and flexibility of cobot automation.
“Stamping was a perfect application to introduce a robot, but we didn’t want to use traditional robots with a really big cell and all the extra expense of safety guarding,” Boogerd says. “So, we tried a UR cobot and today it stamps parts all day long.”
The cobot puts a part in, actuates the machine to stamp it, and then palletizes the part.
“We use UR’s built-in palletizing wizard on both sides of the cobot,” he adds. “Because we’re a high-mix, low-volume shop, there might be times where we run 500 of the same part through, and there might be times where we run 20 pallets of different parts through, and the beautiful thing is, once it’s programmed, it’s done – the operator just has to pull up the program, change out the stamp, and hit go.”
Based on this positive cobot experience, it was a small step for Siouxland Fabricating to ask, “Can we stick a welding arm on the end of our UR cobot and make it weld?”
In the box
As Boogerd researched cobot-powered welding solutions, he discovered BotX Welder, developed by Hirebotics, Red-D-Arc, Airgas and Air Liquide, and was immediately attracted to the
mobility, ease of use and programming features.
BotX Welder comes with a UR10e cobot, Miller XMT welding machine and various table configurations, along with the Hirebotics software application that enable welders to program the system quickly and intuitively. Siouxland Fabricating was able to program production welds on BotX in next to no time.
“We used our typical hand weld settings that we used with our Miller welders and were pretty ecstatic to be producing parts within half a day,” Boogerd says. “We had a welder along with our traditional robotic programmer both learning and using it.”
Due to the system’s ease of use, welders at Siouxland Fabricating were soon programming complicated welds using a combination of hand guidance and the Hirebotics smartphone application.
“One of the main strongpoints for me is the smartphone application,” Boogerd says. “We use iPhones to program the cobot, and it’s very structured, going step by step, and it just makes sense. When you move the cobot, you hit a button on it and it saves that spot. Traditional programming requires pendants and movements and understanding coordinates. This takes all that away.”
When programming its traditional welding robot, Siouxland Fabricating had to assign a robotic programmer and welder to the task. By contrast, BotX can be operated by a lone welder.
“BotX enables us to let the welder move the cobot and create the program on the fly,” Boogerd says. “This was something for which we had always hoped to found a solution. I can weld on the UR cobot too even though I can’t hand weld.”
Matt Van DeKamp, weld robot supervisor and programmer, appreciates the time-saving simplicity of BotX programming process.
“Probably the biggest benefit with BotX is being able to get it from Point A to Point B in a fraction of the time,” he says. “You also have corrective positioning that takes care of positioning and your angle, which is everything in welding. I no longer need the help of the welder or his opinion of how he would hold the torch. That’s a big deal. And I feel a lot more like a welder.”
The usability of BotX took a lot of the “nervousness” around automation away, says Dan DeMeester, maintenance and welding supervisor.
“There are about three buttons you’ve got to know on BotX,” he explains. “Our traditional robots take a lot longer to program. You can get a part and BotX takes 15 min. to program whereas on another machine it would take a couple hours. I can program it, set the schedules, make sure the part’s good and run it myself. BotX turned me into a programmer.”
Handle it all
BotX can not only handle traditional welds, but also more complicated welds, such as weaving and pulse welding.
“Traditionally, we would just do two or three welding passes because we didn’t understand how to use some of those more advanced features,” Boogerd explains. “But having used the UR
cobot, we’re able to use the weaving feature, which cuts cycle time in half. It also saves on consumables because we’re not laying all that extra bead and using gas.”
The ability to program BotX to weave on a double pass enabled Siouxland Fabricating to reduce cycle time on one part from 5 min. and 30 sec. to just under 2 min. and 30 sec.
“It is awesome,” Van DeKamp says. “I now pulse and weave on probably seven different programs, which has helped drastically. I have also taken the advanced welds I have learned on the UR cobot and put them on our traditional robots.”
The BotX deployment has freed up workers to focus on more ergonomic, higher value tasks. Following deployment, welders can focus on fabricating and tacking while the cobot lays the bead. This transfer of labor to the cobot improves cycle times because it stays busy while an operator works on something else.
“In the end, we see more production going out the door because I can have the cobot working without an operator having to babysit it,” Boogerd says.
Given the success of its BotX deployment, Siouxland Fabricating plans to add another welding cobot to its fleet. The company also plans to test its stamping cobot on machine tending tasks involving CNC machines, mills and lathes with a view to adding more cobots to that side of its business.