Heavy-duty Solutions

Automated, robotic welding solutions deliver big results for heavy equipment manufacturers


It’s natural to be wary of change. The human mind is most comfortable with the status quo, but in manufacturing, relying on legacy or antiquated production processes is a sure way be one-upped by competitors. While there have been incremental boosts in welding technology over the years, most job shops are married to welding processes that were new roughly a half century or more ago.

And while it is true that a weldment can only be laid down so fast, there are numerous processes around that action that can bring massive amounts of value. Michael Bell, director of sales at Pemamek, a company that specializes in developing welding technology for several industries, including the heavy equipment industry, has a unique proposition for those that have maintained the exact same approach to welding heavy-duty truck frames.

“I’m going to guess you’re having trouble finding welders,” Bell says of something he might say to a potential customer, bringing up the skilled labor shortage that has impacted any industry where welding is involved. “What if I could provide you with a piece of equipment that gave you 24-hour-a-day access to something that could replace four welders per shift?”

Robotic welding stations bring the type of accuracy that manual welding simply can’t compete with. Pemamek customers are able to work more safely and efficiently with these automated solutions.

He proposes that basically that’s what Pemamek welding solutions do. Whether it’s a facility where massive ships are pieced together, panel by panel, or where 300-ft. wind turbine towers are manufactured, or where huge frames for heavy-duty trucks are fabricated, Pemamek’s welding technology provides a more efficient, consistent and safer way of welding.

“They’re doing the same things they did in the 1950s,” Bell says of many fabricators today. “They’ve got a guy with a helmet and a welder. The last revolution in welding was right around the 1950s when power sources started getting more robust. Now we’re to the point where we’re completely revolutionizing the welding arena for everybody.”

Tuomo Ruuska leads the heavy equipment segment for Pemamek. With two decades of experience in the industry, he’s been witness to every industry shakeup in that time, including the latest challenges manufacturers face with the skills gap. He’s deeply involved in market research, which he analyzes and uses to inform Pemamek decisions regarding heavy equipment solutions. He’s also been part of many automation projects, recognizing that even smaller workshops require the most modern welding solutions.

“When order books are being filled and there is a lack of skilled labor,” Ruuska says, “it’s a natural progression to move to robotic welding also for smaller workshops. The recent advancements in offline programming have made it possible to weld small batches or even single workpieces in a profitable way.”

Robotic resources

One of Bell’s recent projects involved implementing a robotic welding solution for a Midwestern manufacturer focused on building heavy-duty truck frames and large tanks for vacuum excavation units. Rather than using a backhoe or other heavy digging device, users implement the vacuum technology to safely remove material (earth, rocks, etc.) from around infrastructure such as water pipes, gas lines, cables and infrared wiring. The truck frames must be built sturdy enough to handle the weight of the mechanical components of the truck, including the engine, but also the vacuuming apparatus, the capture tank and the weight of the material collected in it.

Utilizing Pemamek’s software, operators can easily program weldments, ensuring high degrees of accuracy and improved throughput.

Pemamek is well-known for its solutions for the precision positioning and welding of round materials, such as those used in wind tower production, so the customer was able to utilize that technology to build the tanks for the trucks. Prior to partnering with Pemamek, the company outsourced its tank production. Bell says they’ve increased their throughput by implementing Pemamek’s tank production solution.

Speaking on the thought process of manufacturers today that have been hit hard by supply chain problems, Bell says, “If I can vertically integrate, I can take away everyone else’s control of the production process. Let me be in more control of my production and manufacturing by vertically integrating. The people who invest now understand that this is a valid investment in the future of the company.”

Getting framed

Pemamek’s approach to positioning and robotic welding of frames differs substantially from shipbuilding solutions, which is more of a 2-D process, and positioning round materials, which are essentially automatically rolled under a submerged arc welding head. While the welding head on a robotic unit for frames must be hovering above the weld pool so it flows properly and weld penetration can be achieved, the positioning technology works in more of a 3-D fashion, precisely moving the frame on multiple axes so every seam of the frame assembly can be welded.

Istrail SP, a subsidiary of Norwegian Istrail Group, specializes in manufacturing high-quality structures for the construction and mining transportation industry. Roughly half the company’s yearly production is in dumper bodies, while the other half is trailer production. Company leaders began researching more efficient ways of producing their goods in 2014 and implemented a Pemamek robotic welding station for its dumper bodies in 2015 and another, larger one in 2020.

Istrail SP leadership wanted to optimize the production phases, which prior to Pemamek’s involvement were all manual, challenging and time-consuming, which makes sense given the average dumper can weigh as much as 8 tons. Ruuska says the manual weld time for one dumper body was 26 hours. After implementing Pemamek’s robotic welding solution, the weld time per dumper body was cut down to 8 hours.

“With the Pema robot station,” says Leif Skipenes, president of Istrail SP, “we are pleased with the quality of the repeated work, efficiency and our ability to conduct work that is not manually possible. Pema original easy-to-use offline software provides flexibility in non-serial production.”

Seamless implementation

Another company invested in heavy equipment manufacturing related to vehicle assemblies, Fortaco, based in Pemamek’s home country of Finland, implemented Pemamek technology after doing its due diligence, determining the future is in automation and robotics. The company invested in welding automation to gain better welding efficiency and to improve overall production capacity.

But making that leap to automation isn’t without its complexities, especially when multiple vendors are involved. A common challenge in robotic welding projects is the integration of project management and service of the technology from different vendors, such as welding robot, robot portal and positioners, welding power source and offline programming software.

This Pemamek Skyhook 3-axis positioner has a 5-ton capacity, making easy work of heavy-duty materials during the welding process.

“With in-house software, Pemamek can bring engineering, manufacturing and process knowledge of welding and after-sales service, while also offering a turnkey solution where there is one responsible party throughout the full lifespan of the delivery,” Ruuska says.

With seamless delivery of all the important components from one vendor, Fortaco leadership, intent on maintaining its global competitiveness, found that the robotic welding station with integrated handling provided more flexibility. But more importantly, they also gained the ability to weld 10 times faster.

While there are many components involved in an automated welding solution, Ruuska says the speed at which Fortaco was able to complete its weld was due, in part, to Pemamek’s ability to offer adaptive welding of changing groove geometry. “First, scanning the groove by laser and thereafter, welding it with one or several passes automatically chosen from a library ensures that the groove is properly filled within the limits of allowable heat input,” he says.

A custom approach

An advantage that Pemamek offers companies involved with positioning and welding massive workpieces is that a customized solution is always an option. Bell says he can begin by working with a company around the building blocks of what Pemamek offers, which includes its tried-and-true positioners, gantries, articulated robotic technology and fine-tune production processes.

“I partner with every one of my customers and say, ‘look, I have technology that is complementary to what you do, and I can make it exactly what you need for you to manufacture,’” he says. “From there, we start to go through our rolodex of technologies and say, ‘if I implement this, this and this, I get us 90 percent of the way to where you need to be.’ Now let’s see what the other 10 percent looks like.”


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