As the post-pandemic recovery continues, manufacturers face serious challenges when it comes to finding and retaining skilled labor. A mid-2021 study commissioned by The Workforce
Institute found that 63 percent of manufacturers are struggling to fill critical labor gaps and that staff turnover is up 15 percent compared to 2020.
Skilled welders are in particularly short supply, creating a flood of problems for manufacturers. These challenges include being forced to no-bid work resulting in a flatter growth curve; longer lead times at higher prices resulting in constant downward pressure on margins and upward pressure on end consumer price; and difficulty in being efficient enough to win bids.
The shortage of welding talent has pushed companies to look at their internal talent pool. Are there ways to make existing welders more impactful on daily operations? If so, how do they do that without making the job undesirable (such as by turning skilled welders into part loaders in a robotic cell)?
Welding automation has been the “go to” for decades. However, the cost and complexity of traditional welding robots has meant that smaller businesses have been unable to enjoy the benefits of automation. And, as manufacturing embraces high-mix, low-volume (HMLV) production, traditional welding robots are proving prohibitively expensive and insufficiently flexible to justify the investment.
The main barriers to automating HMLV welding jobs are usability and part presentation. The emergence of new easy-to-use robotic welding software and innovative fixturing business models enables manufacturers to eliminate these barriers.
Cobot Welder, a collaborative welding system developed by Nashville-based Hirebotics, addresses the usability barrier by providing intuitive software that can be used by a skilled welder. The software, which runs on any smartphone, tablet, or web browser, eliminates the need for welders to learn how to program a robot via a traditional teach pendant.
One of the most significant advancements delivered by the software’s interface is that its design is familiar to anyone who owns a smartphone or tablet device. Operated via familiar gestures such as swiping and drag-and-drop, the interface is worlds away from the intimidating maze of menus and sub-menus employed by traditional robot teach pendant software. The result of this simplicity is that Cobot Welder can be deployed and programmed by a skilled welder – whether they have previous robotics experience or not.
Welders can get up to speed on the Cobot Welder software in minutes, much like learning how to use the new mobile applications they download and use on a regular basis. Because no special training is required and the programming process is so simple and intuitive, welders can focus on applying their expertise to the torch angles and welding parameters rather than on programming. The streamlined, readily accessible programming process enables rapid setup of new parts in dynamic environments.
To succeed with any automated welding deployment, it’s essential that parts are presented in an accurate and repeatable manner. Most small job shops, for example, have developed assembly practices around manual labor and achieve efficiency by tasking humans with managing variances from part to part. This enables companies to produce parts of appropriate quality in the shortest amount of time, using the lowest amount of consumables possible.
Cobot Welder repeatedly goes back to the exact point to which it was originally taught. However, in some cases, the variance allowable in a manual welding process is too great for successful implementation even for a powerful system such as Cobot Welder.
Traditional automation has solved this problem in two main ways. The first strategy is to develop and deploy sophisticated software features such as touch sensing and Thru the Arc seam
tracking that can handle a reasonable amount of variance. However, there is a trade-off to consider.
Sophisticated software and technology can take days or weeks of training to understand and additional weeks and months of practice on the shop floor to perfect. This downtime hurts production. And while the addition of these technologies drives up the level of knowledge of programmers exponentially, this upskilling will dramatically shrink the size of the talent pool there is to draw from, which further increases the cost of attracting and keeping talent.
As the time taken to get from “part in front of the robot” to “arc-on production” increases dramatically, manufacturers require larger and larger batch sizes to justify the investment in robotic welding.
The second strategy is to design, build and implement highly accurate fixtures to locate parts within the tolerances demanded by the robot and the product specifications. In many large part scenarios, a combination of both sophisticated software and fixturing is implemented.
When parts are located precisely and consistently, the robot can weld without the need for sophisticated software. To accomplish this goal, integrators partner with manufacturers to develop solutions specific to a particular challenge or part.
This model has worked very successfully within the traditional welding automation industry, but simple economics shows this ecosystem produces a lot of mouths to feed. As a result of these overheads, even simple fixtures for simple parts are high-cost items. This drives up the batch sizes that are needed to justify the expense of fixturing. In many cases, this strategy is only applied to high profit margin parts.
Another downside of the traditional approach is that the manufacturer is beholden to the integrator for automation success. While this is viable in certain circumstances, it does not empower the manufacturer to own the automation of small-batch/low-margin production by moving quickly and efficiently on a timetable they have defined.
With the advent of easy-to-program and accessible systems such as Cobot Welder, there is growing demand from HMLV manufacturers for a similarly accessible solution to their part repeatability problems.
Many companies have manual fixtures that will work for cobot-based welding automation. If cycle time is not a factor, welding slightly slower or over welding may cover any variance and still offer the benefits of moving consumables from a variable cost to a fixed cost as well as a repeatable cycle time for production planning.
Companies with no manual fixtures or high part variability are turning to Fixture as a Service (FaaS) solutions to address the fixturing challenges outlined above.
Camtek OptiSolutions, for example, a software company with decades of experience in fixturing for robotic welding, offers effective and cost-effective FaaS solutions. First, the solid model of the weldment, weld schematics and intake document are uploaded to the company’s website and reviewed by a team of expert tool designers. Based on the complexity, an estimate is provided.
Once finalized, the fixture model and component parts are securely uploaded to the web for the fabricator to download and produce locally, then assemble following annotated reference markers on the fixture components.
When compared to the traditional tool room method for making fixtures, the cost savings are dramatic. Additional savings are made by using inexpensive sheet steel and machines that are already accessible.
Contracting out the design portion of the process (expertise that most small and medium-sized job shops do not have in house in any case) saves time and money and provides a solution to the repeatability question while maintaining the ease of use and accessibility of the Cobot Welder system. For manufacturers of all sizes facing shortages of skilled welders and uncertain economic conditions, this combination of easy-to-use automation and FaaS solutions removes the last remaining barriers to welding automation adoption.