Automate, weld, repeat

Appliance manufacturing becomes agile and flexible thanks to robotics and laser welding

Image of a washing machine interior Inside of a empty washing machine - metallic look

Millennials have gotten a bad rap. Born between 1982 and 2000, these 20- to 30-somethings have been referred to as entitled and even lazy. But one thing must be understood: The group has huge buying power. They are passing baby boomers as the largest generation in U.S. history and are expected to inject more than $200 billion into the economy just this year – an amount that might have some walking back on the negative labels attributed to such a large segment of our population.

Goldman Sachs reports that millennials have “come of age during a time of technological change, globalization and economic disruption.” As they get older and their disposable incomes grow, businesses and brands would do well to pay attention to the buying habits of this new purchasing powerhouse.

coldwater laser weld
The Coldwater roll-up and laser weld module for the fabrication of washer and dryer drums and baskets can be modified according to customer requirements.

Product improvement

Despite millennials’ predilection for technology, their product preferences – at least in washing machines and other appliances – reveal a savvy approach to consumerism. As homeownership among millennials grows, they are buying more appliances and they are not basing their decisions on fancy bells and whistles. Instead they are making purchases based on perceived quality and environmental impact.

As an example, when an appliance manufacturer opts for stainless steel components instead of plastic, millennials take note. Not only is stainless steel a sustainable material, some washing machine drums are made of plastic or porcelain, which can contain harsh chemicals. Although metal components raise the price, they also increase the product’s longevity while being more Earth friendly.

Metal components in washers and dryers aren’t new, but they do mark a turning point in appliance manufacturing. Manufacturers have conquered the high-volume market and, therefore, are now choosing to offer additional product lines, such as the “luxury” lines that include more metal parts.

The automotive industry went through a similar transition in response to the quickened pace of product changes and expansions. To keep tooling costs down, automakers focused on becoming more flexible through automated solutions. And now, the appliance industry is going through that same transition.

Finding a partner

coldwater and fanuc laser welding
The partnership with Coldwater and Fanuc allows customers to increase their manufacturing agility and flexibility.

To offer the higher quality units that millennials are in search of while still offering lower priced product lines, appliance manufacturers are turning to Coldwater Machine Co. In late 2016, Coldwater announced its strategic partnership with long-time robotics supplier, Fanuc America Corp. The partnership will enable the flexibility manufacturers need through automated systems that come at a lower cost.       

“The big driver in appliance manufacturing right now is agile, flexible manufacturing based on a need to quickly switch over to different product lines,” says Dan Barry, vice president, sales and marketing, at Coldwater. “As has been true in automotive manufacturing, robotics will be key for the white goods community. In the past, the main impediment to agile, flexible manufacturing was cost, but thanks to the new partnership with Fanuc, we’re able to buy the robot for less and get the additional training and support that our customers need.”

Before Coldwater’s partnership with Fanuc was announced, the company had already established itself as a well-respected supplier to the automotive and white goods industries as well as to the aerospace and energy industries for its automated work cells and assembly lines, providing welding, forming and inspection processes. This variety of experience provides Coldwater a unique ability to cross-pollinate technology across industry sectors.

automotive welding

Smart systems

Part of the company’s reputation as a solutions provider comes from its proprietary, customizable systems, such as its roll-up and laser weld module for the fabrication of washer and dryer drums and baskets. The system includes a servo-controlled de-coiler that feeds stainless steel through a straightener into a trimming press where the material is sheared to specified sheet lengths and where edges are prepared for laser welding.

welding video

Preparation for the laser welding process includes rolling the material into a hoop-shaped wrapper, which will eventually become the basket or drum. In a single pass, the joint is laser seam welded, eliminating double handling of the part as compared to traditional processes.

“The traditional process sometimes meant that the material had to be flipped over after blanking before rolling it into the hoop shape,” Barry explains. “We’ve combined all of those operations into a single station, making it more reliable. It took a lot of collaboration with one of our customers to develop the process, but it was worth the effort.”

Part of the effort included the introduction of Fanuc equipment. The company’s robots were integrated for material loading and unloading. Barry says that a truly flexible line wouldn’t have been possible without Fanuc’s robots feeding the material into the station.

“Now that Fanuc is involved, the process is even more agile,” he continues. “If a customer wants to do a changeover to a larger basket for their washing machines, the weld module can continue to run because the robot can pick up stock from a temporary sheet of blanks. It’s all about flexibility.”

Because the robots can easily manage the material handling aspect of a manufacturing line, appliance makers can handle different lengths and widths of material and different sizes of products. Essentially, they allow for standardization during the material handling from one product to the next.

Laser welding quality

In addition to flexible automation, Coldwater systems also leverage high-precision laser welding as opposed to traditional welding techniques. Weld quality and strength are verified by scanning and inspection of the weld joints.

“Our customers are often doing a butt weld and must do so in an extremely accurate way,” Barry says. “With our systems, they can hold accuracy over the entire length of the material at about 0.001 in. A lot of precision goes into welding of the stainless steel baskets, and one of the things that allows us to achieve those tolerances is monitoring the welding process. Another is lasers.”

welding video

Coldwater’s turnkey systems include laser welding solutions that leverage CO2 or fiber lasers to handle a variety of metals, including cold-rolled, prepainted, stainless and galvanized sheet metals in various material thicknesses.

To further achieve high-quality results, Coldwater’s systems apply continuous inward pressure to keep the gap tight as well as strong top and bottom clamping force throughout the welding process. By incorporating these technologies and operating strategies, appliance manufacturers can produce superior designs with superior weld strength and, therefore, longer product life.

“U.S. appliance manufacturers are moving up the quality chain in terms of offering more exclusive options,” Barry says. “In the past, a lot of those offerings came from Europe, but now, U.S. and North American manufacturers are moving up that food chain. We’ve conquered the high-volume side of the industry; now we’re able to move into the luxury side of the industry, as well.”

Whether consumers fall under the millennial umbrella or not, having more options is a welcome prospect. And, if flexible automation options, such as those enabled by partnerships like the Coldwater Fanuc relationship, bring costs down, then everyone wins.

Coldwater Machine Co.

Fanuc America Corp.

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