Choosing a robotic welding system
Investing in welding automation for the first time may seem daunting. How do manufacturers know if automation in the welding process is a good fit, and how do they choose which type of automation system best suits their needs?
The right fit is important to optimize an automation system. It often comes down to how complex the parts are and how much part manipulation the application requires.
Benefits of welding automation
A robotic welding system can help manufacturers improve efficiency, reduce waste and generate higher quality welds. A general rule of thumb is that an optimized automated welding system can produce a three-to-one output improvement over a human operator.
Also, more companies are turning to automated welding as an answer to the skilled labor shortage in the industry.
Questions to ask before implementing welding automation
For manufacturers new to automation, there are many options to consider. Focusing on the answers to a few key questions can help operations choose the right system.
Start with these four questions:
What type of parts am I producing?
Simple, repeatable parts — high part volume with low part sophistication — work well for welding automation. Conversely, large, complex parts are often more difficult to weld robotically. Working with a robot integrator or robot OEM can help operations determine what options are best for their specific production needs.
What do my upstream processes look like?
A repeatable upstream fabrication process is crucial to welding automation success. In fact, a manufacturer that fails to look at upstream processes to ensure they are in good shape isn't maximizing the automation investment. Part preparation and fit-up need to be consistent for the robot to produce quality welds each time. While robots can adapt to part fit-up or weld inconsistency, this may require more expensive options and complicate the process. Therefore, it's key to load repeatable parts into the fixturing to produce quality parts. Upstream efficiency is also important since these processes may need to move faster to catch up to the performance of the robot.
What results am I looking for?
Operations must understand their goals to choose a welding automation system. For example, do they need to improve productivity, reduce rework and scrap, or make it easier to train new welders? With the right welding automation system, a company can significantly improve first-pass weld quality and reduce the need for scrapping or reworking parts. These systems also offer advanced welding processes designed to minimize or eliminate spatter. As a result, the need to apply anti-spatter or perform post-weld cleanup is reduced — both of which are labor-intensive processes.
Do I have the right people in place?
Part of the investment in welding automation includes having or hiring employees who will oversee the process. Operations must employ the right people and provide them with the necessary training so they can operate the system properly. Robots can reduce the bottleneck of the welding process to free up hand welders, who can then focus on parts of the process or operation that cannot be automated. Resource these personnel to sections of the line that will become new bottlenecks if other areas cannot keep up because of the high throughput of the robot.
Welding automation solutions
Robotic welding solutions are not one size fits all, and there are numerous options to consider.
More advanced robotic welding systems — those that use two robots welding in tandem, for example — are more complicated to program and operate, which increases the risk of the investment.
Some traditional automation solutions, such as Miller® PerformArc™ robotic welding systems, are available as pre-engineered, ready-to-weld cells. This makes adding an automated welding cell quick and simple. Benefits of these systems include:
- Fast installation
- Low total cost of ownership
- Operator and cell protection
- Lower risk
- Increased productivity
What about cobots?
Cobots (short for collaborative robots) are an emerging technology in the automation space with still-developing solutions. These systems are still industrial robots, but they feature intuitive user interfaces that can be less intimidating and less costly for operations to adopt as a first step into automation, especially for operations producing simple parts.
The main differences between cobots and traditional automated welding systems involve safety standards and expectations. Cobots are designed to work in close proximity to human operators. In order to do this safely, cobots reduce pinch points (any point at which it’s possible for a person or part of a person's body to be caught between moving parts of the robot), are limited in how fast they can move in auto mode, and are more sensitive to collisions. This sensitivity with lower speeds makes them safer to work alongside humans. Cobots can be programmed to move faster when they are not working alongside a human.
Compared to cobots, traditional industrial robots will have much higher rates of speed and therefore more safety guards in place. This typically results in much greater productivity gains with traditional robots; they can do more complex parts and more part manipulation when required. The faster speeds can also help operations meet goals for productivity and throughput.
First-time welding automation
There are different types of welding automation systems to meet a range of needs. An operation’s journey toward implementing welding automation might be a multi-step, multi-purchase process. It’s OK to start out slowly and match automation solutions to growth needs.
No matter the solution chosen, robotic welding solutions deliver significant benefits for many manufacturers — from improved productivity and reduced costs to faster operator training. Learn more about welding automation solutions from Miller.