It is no secret that the welding workforce has historically been dominated by men. It is also no secret, however, that there has been a push to diversify the industry. Not only can women do the job, but increasing the number of women in welding helps to broaden the talent pool and promote innovation through diverse perspectives, both of which are greatly needed to enhance productivity and solve the skills gap.
To help achieve gender parity in the welding workforce while also increasing the availability of much-needed talent, educational institutions are ramping up their outreach to women; manufacturers and fabricators are hiring more women and putting them in leadership roles; and professional associations, like the American Welding Society (AWS), are providing support and resources in the form of training and networking opportunities.
In that regard, AWS recently hosted “Women in Welding Virtual Conference 2023: Automation in Manufacturing,” a webinar that put several women welders and their accomplishments in the spotlight. Each presenter provided background information about how they entered the welding workforce while also describing the cutting-edge automation technologies they are working on to help solve the industry’s labor shortages.
One of the talented women presenters was Katie Sheridan, an applications engineer at Vectis Automation LLC. Right out of the gate, she described herself as “a little Swiss Army knife,” taking on several roles within the company since being hired more than a year ago.
“Half of the time, I’m in steel toes, and the other half of the time, I’m at my desk,” says the recent Colorado State University graduate, “so it’s a fun mixture of all sorts of different jobs every day.”
With a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering, Sheridan adeptly focused her portion of the AWS virtual conference on boosting welding productivity through the use of the cobot fabrication tools that Vectis offers to its customers. She walked attendees through the definition of a cobot, the problems it helps to solve and what makes for a good application fit.
Vectis, in partnership with cobot pioneer, Universal Robots, offered the first commercially successful cobot welding in the United States and today has the largest cobot welding and cutting installation base in North America. Located out of Loveland, Colo., Sheridan said the company’s goal is to “boost productivity in an easy-to-use, portable, versatile way as well as with quick delivery that is cost-effective.”
She went on to define a cobot, a collaborative robot, as a 6-axis industrial robot that humans can work alongside, meaning that it is “power, force and speed-limited,” she said. “If it hits you, a fixture, a part, anything, it’s going to stop. It’s also characterized by quick and easy programming, which enables easier adaptation of automation – especially for first-time robot users.”
For further differentiation, she explained that cobots typically have a smaller footprint than a traditional robotic cell; are great for high-mix, low-volume manufacturing as well as certain high-volume or sub-assemblies; and can fill the gap between manual welding and traditional automation. While traditional robots are typically faster than cobots, they need a large, dedicated enclosure and footprint to accommodate the safety measures that are involved. They also often require a higher all-in cost.
Overall, one of the main drivers for the increase in cobot adoption is labor shortages. Cobots are being used to offload boring tasks from skilled laborers and are being leveraged to attract and retain talent. From a job satisfaction standpoint, cobots keep workers safe and engaged.
Beyond labor, Sheridan explained that cobots can also help fabricators with their cost-saving initiatives. For starters, cobots are typically lower priced than a traditional system and are sometimes even lower than a highly skilled manual welder. Other savings include saved production and programming times as well as the savings that come with their redeployability, versatility and minimal floor space. Cobots can also reduce the cost of over-welding on manual parts as well as the costs associated with post-weld and post-cut operations.
“If you have a 1/4-in. weld, but are laying down a 5/16-in. weld, you’re over-welding by 56 percent,” she explained. “Not only are you spending more time on that weld with manual labor, but you may have to grind off that weld, which costs money. And that doesn’t even take into account the addition of the gas and metal that you’re using and increased distortion potential of the part.”
Cobots can also bring in more business potential for fabricators to generate more revenue. Increased capacity and reduced lead times lead to fabricators being able to say yes to jobs that they otherwise would have had to pass on. There’s a lot of potential.
Cobot case studies
During the virtual conference, Sheridan offered several case study examples of how Vectis customers were solving their labor issues while simultaneously increasing revenue, starting with Super Vac, Fort Collins, Colo., which makes firetruck and firefighting equipment. She explained that while firetrucks aren’t a good fit for automation with their large footprint, customizations and weld types/locations/sizes, Super Vac also produces fan shrouds that are a good fit for automation.
“Each part has 140 tack welds, which is a very monotonous task,” Sheridan said. “The thought behind it is how to offload these repetitive weldments to the cobot to free up welders from the boring tasks.”
After automating the tack welds, the company shifted their skilled welders to the firetrucks that require more skill. In the end, they reported double the productivity plus happier welders.
Another customer, an automotive aftermarket manufacturer, invested in two cobots for less than the cost and footprint of a traditional robotic cell. In doing so, the manufacturer doubled arc on-time, reduced downtime and went from producing 90 parts a day to 280. The company reported reductions in time and labor savings on downstream processes, as well.
Sheridan went on to describe a job shop in Pennsylvania that assigned medium-size batches to a new cobot and achieved up to five times the productivity while also eliminating post-weld grinding. In fact, the individual that had been spending his days grinding became the cobot operator even though he wasn’t a trained welder himself. Not only did he enjoy the new role, but his grinding work became a lot easier because the cobot reduced the need for post-weld operations.
In terms of how Vectis can help, Sheridan laid out several of the company’s cart systems that employ a Universal Robots cobot that can be integrated with Miller, Lincoln and Fronius welders or with a plasma cutting system. “We have rotational range extenders with remote mounting,” she explained, saying that they can all be integrated into different cart options, which expands the ways users can deploy cobots.
Thanks to the carts’ mobility, some users choose to leverage their existing fixtures by just pushing the cart up to them. Others have set up their carts with someone manually working on one side while the cobot is working on other. There are also dual-zone carts that have one cobot managing two jobs. Sheridan said the configuration possibilities are incredibly wide.
“There’s also off-the-cart welding,” she said, describing a customer that chose to put the cobot on a platform to weld onto an existing fixture. Another customer had a fairly large part, so they chose to wheel the cobot up to it and weld off the cart. Another customer took advantage of the Vectis Park’N’Arc offering that allows the cobot to reach over especially large parts that may be seated on the floor or in a dedicated fixture.
In terms of good application fits, Sheridan said that those are wide-ranging, too: multi-pass welding, tacking, circles and complex weld shapes, vertical passes, outside corners. No matter the case, the team at Vectis will help customers navigate the good applications as well as the not-so-good ones while laying out the operational keys to success.
While Vectis doesn’t shy from helping customers with their automation needs, Sheridan said there are three general guidelines to follow with the biggest one being consistency. From there, she recommended starting with the low-hanging fruit and then, making sure the right person is tasked for the job.
“In terms of consistency, welding automation, including cobots, is going to perform best when all of the parts are always going to be in the same spot,” she explained. “They’re always fixtured the same, with no gaps and no big changes part to part. The cobot does not inherently know if the part is moved or if the weld joint is off, so it’s important to have that consistency.”
In terms of starting with the low-hanging fruit first, she said “there’s this temptation to start with the largest, most complex part, but some of the most effective initial jobs to tackle are those boring, repetitive welds – stuff with a bunch of subassemblies or brackets, things you need a lot of, but are not necessarily exciting or hard for a manual welder to do. Look for the pallets of parts outside the manual weld station and offload them to the cobot.”
The same goes for programming. “It’s nice to start with those quick wins,” she said. “Get comfortable with the system and get some ROI before jumping into the harder jobs. Starting with the low-hanging fruit can help get your operators into the mindset of welding with a cobot, but it can also help getting those boring weldments out of the way.”
Equally important is assigning the right person to the job. “Eagerness and ownership are some of the most important things,” Sheridan explained. “Technical items can be learned, but welding is a science, so having a little bit of weld knowledge can help.”
As she mentioned, though, in the case study where the grinding staff had become the cobot operator, welding experience isn’t – because that former grinder was able to pair-up with an experienced welder in the shop to learn the ins and outs of welding science. And, she added, Vectis “is here to help. Just don’t be afraid to ask questions.”
Despite all of the new technologies that are “coming at us pretty fast,” Sheridan concluded that there are so many products on the market that have already been proven out. There are also rent-to-own options, return policies,