Heavy-duty Solutions

Welding automation assists a transportation equipment manufacturer in making better use of space, improving productivity

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As one of the largest manufacturers of transportation equipment in Northern Europe, Vahto, Finland-based Vak Oy is continuously focused on fine-tuning its operations’ methods and processes. The family-owned business employs 500 people between its Finland headquarters and a subsidiary located in Sweden. Founded in 1972 by Lassi Virtanen, Vak manufactures a range of heavy transportation equipment, including trailers, transport bodies, V-sliders, dollies, and demountables and demountable trailers.

“We design and manufacture structures,” says Matti Virtanen, Vak’s sales director and member of the board, “such as trailers, cargo compartments and demountable bodies for the transportation industry.”

Vak’s robotic welding station includes an XYZ-gantry floor track gantry, one Yaskawa welding robot and two headstock positioners with two manually adjustable supporting units.

Trailer frames make up the biggest product group with a sales volume of around 700 to 800 trailers per year. Up until a few years ago, these large structures, measuring up to 17.5 m long and 2.5 m wide, were assembled manually. As incoming orders continued to grow and advanced manufacturing technologies evolved, the company decided it was time to invest in an automated system that allowed for more efficient production and an increased capacity to accommodate growth.

“The assembly welding was previously done manually and this was one of the phases in which we saw an opportunity for optimization,” Virtanen says. “The main reasons we started to consider robotic welding was to improve process efficiency and, above all, to invest in our future capacity.”

Automation partner

Vak opted to work with Pemamek Ltd. (Loimaa, Finland, with U.S. headquarters in Mason, Ohio), a global automated welding and production automation equipment expert with 53 years of experience in welding and production automation in the heavy equipment industry, including tractor trailers. It helped that both companies are located approximately 37 miles from each other and that they had worked together previously.

The XYZ axis was implemented to create a wide envelope to reach all sides of the trailer frames, some of which can measure 55.4 ft. by 8.2 ft.

“We had collaborated before,” recalls Teemu Rusi, Pemamek applications manager, heavy equipment, “but when they decided to implement more robotics into their production, we were able to provide the best system for their needs. They were looking for a rather big solution and we were capable of doing a large-scale size installation for them.”

The Pemamek team met with representatives from Vak from the outset, reviewing 3-D models, product drawings and so on, eventually doing a full-scale simulation and layout design to fit Vak’s unique requirements.

“Our Pemamek modular design systems are equipped with proven technology that allows us to create individual proposals for each customer,” Rusi says, “diving deep into the production and their needs.”

Custom solutions

Vak ordered a comprehensive Pemamek robotic welding station to perform the assembly welding jobs. The station included an XYZ-gantry floor track gantry, one Yaskawa welding robot and two headstock positioners with two manually adjustable supporting units. According to Rusi, the XYZ axis was implemented to create a wide envelope to reach all sides of the trailer frames, some of which measure 55.4 ft. by 8.2 ft. The trailer frame is rotated by the Pemamek positioners so that it can be tilted in different orientations. When combined, the positioners are capable of handling 20 metric tons.

The welding station has a 131-ft.-long track and two operational cells so that while one robot is welding on the left side, the right side can be loaded and unloaded simultaneously. If the cell on the right is not being used for automated welding operations, it can be used for manual operations such as tack welding and pre-assembly. The robot can be activated at any time. These options provide the necessary flexibility and save significant production time.

One welding robot is capable of doing the job of three to five welders, freeing the welder to operate the entire system according to plan.

The entire welding station was assembled and tested at Pemamek’s Loimaa headquarters for minimal downtime on the Vak shop floor. In fact, the new system was fully operational within three weeks from assembly. And it addressed Vak’s need to keep production moving in the absence of a full team of skilled welders, a challenge faced by many manufacturers.

One welding robot is capable of doing the job of three to five welders, freeing the welder to operate the entire system according to plan, keeping production going. In Vak’s case, this is two shifts per day and overnight. How is this done? Pemamek’s WeldControl 300 Offline software.

Developed for 3-D CAD-based offline programming, the user-friendly interface enables welders to download CAD files, then edit welds and robot configurations quickly and easily as necessary. Operators can further manipulate individual welds and access a full library of weld functions and slicing options all on one panel. Multiple welds can be programmed into the software ahead of time and then implemented when needed. Additionally, advanced multi-pass welding operations can be programmed for large and heavy steel structures.

“The key to success here is the programming and the welding station’s large envelope,” Rusi says. “If we are going to program a weld on the other side of the trailer frame, we can perform a mirroring of that weld or welds on both sides of the trailer frame, which will cut programming time in half. Vak used the WeldControl 300 macro function to record smaller macros.”

For example, 10 welds can be repeated in different locations throughout the trailer frame with three clicks.

“The production goals that we set for the robotic welding station have been accomplished and our production is now significantly more efficient,” Virtanen says. “The station has brought several benefits to us. The throughput, planning and scheduling aspects of our production are working a lot better. Automated welding requires the designers to pay more attention to details, so our 3-D models have also improved. Additionally, we’ve been able to develop our product modularity.”

Utilizing data

The data captured during the welding process has been invaluable to the Vak team. In addition to improved welding efficiency, the benefits are visible in other production phases, as well. After implementing welding automation, Vak has gotten a better understanding of its trailer frame production and predictability.

In the event a problem with the system arises, Vak opted into Pemamek’s preventative maintenance program. Pemamek experts are available 12 hours per day to help with any robotic issues and updates to the software are automatic.

Developed for 3-D CAD-based offline programming, the WeldControl 300 Offline software’s macro function was used by Vak to record smaller macros.

The ramp-up and adaptation phases of the transition went smoothly due, in part, to well-rounded training by Pemamek experts.

“If the personnel are well-trained for the new methodologies,” Virtanen says, “the ramp-up time is significantly faster. Together with Pemamek’s support, our motivated and fast-learning production team was able to pick up the new welding technologies quickly.”

Thanks to the robotic welding station, the factory layout has improved, as well. Virtanen says the existing space in the factory was optimized at the same time and now all the space is being better used. Vak is open to adopting additional welding automation cells in the future.

“We are very happy with our collaboration with Pemamek,” Virtanen says. “It was easy to reach Pemamek, and the team actively and genuinely wanted to help us. Automation does bring benefits and we think that in the future we will also acquire more when the time is right.”

Welding automation technology transcends international borders. It is easily adaptable to many heavy equipment applications and truck manufacturers everywhere to help optimize production, create structurally strong assemblies and get rigs on the road.

Pemamek

Vak Oy

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