Accelerated Training

Boosting operator productivity at the intersection of manual and automated welding

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The squeeze in the welding workforce has been an ongoing hurdle for shops of all sizes for more than a decade. According to LightCast, a labor market analytics firm, an estimated 360,000 new welders are needed to meet demand in the United States alone by 2027 – a total of 90,000 per year. Even with aggressive recruitment, filling the gap and training up the next-generation welders will take time.

Fortunately, as the labor shortage impact on the industry has grown, so has the impact of technology – in a positive way. Welding manufacturers, including Miller, have been working to engineer solutions that give welders more options for tackling the welds that hold our world and its pieces together.

Featuring AccuGuide technology for pinpoint accuracy in programming and simple, intuitive IntelliSet software, the Miller Copilot cobot automation system helps extend and amplify welding capabilities.

The cobot is one such result of that work. A fusion term originating from “collaborative” and “robot,” the cobot operates in the space between manual and automated welding – and it’s helping to bridge the gap between the existing workforce and the one the industry desperately needs.

Easy to use, cobots further productivity and quality thanks to simplified settings that give operators of varying skill levels the ability to produce quality welds quickly, consistently and repeatedly, with minimized downtime. Their footprint is also comparable to a welding booth, which makes for nearly seamless shop integration. All this upside leads to even more upside: Because welders can learn to operate a cobot in a matter of hours, it’s possible to increase outputs and delivery nearly immediately – generating ROI on the purchase of the machine while concurrently adding to a shop’s bottom line.

And there’s a workload benefit, as well. Cobots are designed to lighten the loads of welders who often work in understaffed shops, homing in on smaller, straightforward welds with consistency while allowing highly skilled and seasoned welders to tackle more complex jobs. And that’s exactly why cobots are gaining momentum in the marketplace.

Accelerating productivity

Miller has been innovating in the welding space for nearly a century, engineering equipment designed by welders for welders to alleviate pain points in their work and for the workforce. That approach is what drove the design of the Miller Copilot collaborative welding system, which was introduced in early 2023 to help operations address ongoing labor shortages so they could amplify their welding.

Training on the Copilot only takes a matter of minutes or hours depending on the job to be done, and its intuitive setup gives welders the ability to get to work quickly with its superior positioning and control, simplified settings and varied process capabilities.

The simple, intuitive Miller Copilot gets both seasoned and beginning welders from learning to welding in just hours – often, new customers have their own staff teaching others on their team how to weld the same day.

While an efficient upstart isn’t uncommon to the cobot space, Miller made sure to engineer the machine for ease of use and welder intuition so that operations wading into welding automation for the first time would find machine setup and usage both approachable and impactful. A few of the features that differentiate the Copilot include:

  • The AccuGuide positioning control, which helps fine-tune the position of the torch during programming versus using only the free-jogging feature of the cobot
  • IntelliSet Weld Management, which provides recommended weld settings based on material, process and joint type, allowing operators to build programs with confidence in weld quality based on proven results
  • A sophisticated power source that provides advanced welding process capabilities, including AccuPulse, to help resolve difficult welding challenges

Increasing output

The speed at which a cobot can accelerate training and enhance an operation’s productivity is a game changer, especially for high-mix, low- to mid-volume shops.

Setups in these shops demand significant flexibility for quick changeovers from project to project. They also require a skilled manual workforce for creating a variety of consistent, quality welds. When those welders aren’t available amid the ongoing workforce shortage, some shops opt for machine welding. Yet automated industrial welders have their own demands, requiring highly skilled programmers to achieve reliable, precise welds as well as ample setup time between projects.

This quality weld from the Miller Copilot is an example of the precision and consistency users can expect from human welders collaborating with automation.

In either case, high-mix, low- to mid-volume welding shops are usually on the hook to produce customized metal components, specialized machinery and equipment, automotive aftermarket parts and more. When demand outstrips capacity, backlogs build, lead times are extended, orders are lost, and projects are late or go unfilled. Welding faster to meet demand leads to more defects, which means more overtime for rework and resources lost to scrap – an unsustainable production cycle and unsound business model.

Cobots exist to address these very issues. They take on some of the physical tasks of welding, cut programming time and, thanks to their mechanical precision, consistently achieve higher quality welds than manual welders while decreasing costs related to rework materials and scrap. In short, they help shops extend capacity by tackling welds with quality and consistency again and again. According to a study conducted by Miller, customers who used the Copilot saw significant increases in productivity and decreases in defects – with no change in the floor space footprint versus manual welding.

The mention of no footprint change is more than a footnote. As a rule, introducing automation will force a shift in the physical and technological footprint of an operation as well as safety requirements given the adjacency of machines to other manual welders. Cobots have a minimal impact on these fronts – and because they’re designed to be operated by welders and run adjacent to manual welders, they include the requisite features that prioritize end-user safety, such as collision protection, speed specifications, limited air moves and more.

A simple machine

Cobot training programs guide welders through the welding process step by step, which is especially helpful for new welders learning basic techniques. Cobots often run in simulation mode, allowing welders to practice skills before welding, which helps newer operators build confidence as they’re developing their skills.

But newer welders aren’t the only ones to benefit from these simplified interfaces. If a seasoned welder wants to use the machine, the programming, especially on the Copilot, is very intuitive and a matter of mere steps. This is particularly great for shops that need to fulfill orders and may have staffing challenges that require more agility to deliver a variety of workpieces on schedule.

The platform of the IntelliSet weld settings assistant, a feature of the Miller Copilot, provides recommended weld settings based on material, process and joint type, allowing operators to build quality programs with confidence based on proven results.

A consolidated interface is a notable differentiator for the Copilot, part and parcel of the Miller team’s efforts to create a simple machine. Most cobots have multiple interfaces that require juggling across the cobot and the power source. However, with the Copilot, operators set all weld parameters – speed, arc voltage, wire feed rate and torch orientation – on the cobot’s programming pendant versus at the power source. To simplify the programming process even further, Miller introduced IntelliSet, which gives operators access to a lineup of default settings and customization options for specific welding conditions through a series of intuitive programming inputs.

“It’s very simple. There’s not a lot of bells and whistles that make it more confusing,” says Andy Horst, manufacturing engineer at Franklin Fueling Systems. “It’s straightforward and you’re literally welding in minutes.”

Generally speaking, cobot operators mount the welding torch, position the workpiece and arrange any additional accessories required for the weld. Next, using the cobot’s teach pendant and its graphical user interface, they teach the robot where the welding path is – identifying start and end points and intermediate waypoints.

On the Copilot, the AccuGuide positioning joystick helps fine-tune the positioning and torch angle of the arm with precision, which expedites the programming process that typically accounts for most of the welder’s time on the machine. From there, a welder tests and optimizes the program to make sure it performs as expected. Once the program is fine-tuned, tested and finalized, it can be deployed. Operators then monitor the performance and adjust to optimize the weld.

Using AccuGuide technology for pinpoint accuracy in programming, the Miller Copilot easily makes small, precise adjustments in torch angle and positioning, simplifying programming with the most complicated situations.

Using these simple processes, deployment time is incredibly efficient. In fact, 100 percent of Copilot beta test sites were welding within hours of the equipment being unpacked and hooked up. Furthermore, most customers meet a challenge that Miller encourages – to have their personnel learn to weld within a day and then train other personnel on the same day.

Increased welding appeal

Though there’s an initial investment cost with cobots, shops of all sizes can save on labor costs and build their bottom line with higher productivity. Not only that, these machines expand production capabilities for understaffed shops – while also having unique appeal among the next generation of welders. That appeal is multifaceted, including safety and technology.

A sizable part of attracting and maintaining welders is providing a safe work environment they’ll want to return to day after day. Because cobots are designed for human collaboration – for operation with, and proximity to, other welders – they feel safe as well as approachable, which appeals to welders as well as owners and production managers.

The Miller Copilot is versatile and serves to weld a variety of workpieces. With linear and circular programming modes, complex geometries can be performed in the weld path.

Next, thanks to their technology, cobots span the gap between manual and automated operations and are therefore evolving the traditional image of the industry. Both small and large operations report that cobot welding is less intimidating for workers who were once averse to manual welding.

Not only that, cobots have also become more welcoming on-ramps to welding careers for digital natives and women. Younger generations tend to be more inclined and comfortable using the technology, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that women are more likely to hold welding positions when there is automation involved at a rate of nearly four to one versus manual welding.

Watch the video to learn about the intuitive and easy-to-use Miller Copilot equipped with an AccuGuide micro adjustable joystick to provide precise torch maneuvering during programming.

For all these reasons and more, cobots – while newer to the welding landscape – have already found a home for themselves in the industry. Given their contributions to production and role amid workforce shortages, they’re no doubt poised for growth, impact and further evolution in the years to come.

Miller Electric Mfg. LLC

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