The big payback

For one metal fabricator, cobots provide a major productivity boost for welding and machine tending

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“I’m always one who wants to try things myself – that’s what’s going to show me whether it’s going to work,” says Greg LeFevre, CEO and president of Ohio-based sheet metal fabricator Raymath. While researching automation options, LeFevre discovered Universal Robots (UR) and a UR-certified systems integrator, THG Automation, close by. THG’s CEO Matt Hendey invited LeFevre to get hands-on with the company’s UR cobot-based MIG welding system.

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The dexterity of the 6-axis UR cobot dramatically increased the speed of the TIG welding process. Before, the welder had to manually rotate and manipulate the fixture.

“Within the four hours I was there, we programmed 20 weld points,” LeFevre says. “It proved to me that if I can learn to program it in four hours, there’s no doubt the system can work in our shop. I wrote the purchase order that same night.”

Raymath started with a cobot-based MIG welding application and expanded its automation strategy to include complex TIG welding applications. The company has grown from $15 million in revenue to $50 million in about three years, and LeFevre attributes the growth to the fast adoption of technology.

“The learning curve and cost aren’t as steep as what people think they are,” he says, “so don’t be afraid to take that step. You’re going to find out that even if it doesn’t go perfect, that ROI is going to be there in a pretty short time.”

Supply satisfaction

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All UR cobot-based weld solutions from THG Automation are based on Fronius weld process controls and are all water-cooled CMT (cold metal transfer).

Raymath welds, presses, bends, lasers and machines metals of all sorts for almost any industry. The company produces parts that go into conveyors for large warehouses, construction equipment used worldwide, transportation and parking automation systems, food equipment and more. LeFevre and his business partner, Jay Woeste, bought the 40-year-old tool-and-die shop in May 2019 and quickly expanded the company despite the immediate challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Customers want to have fewer suppliers,” LeFevre says. “Instead of having a hundred suppliers, they’d like to have 10 that can do more. We wanted to satisfy those needs.”

With a background in automation, LeFevre knew automation would be key to meeting their goals, but his experience was in high-volume, low-mix manufacturing.

“It’s easy to automate when you make millions of a specific part,” he says, “but moving into the fab shop, sheet metal-type business, we’re looking at a large number of different parts, but in much smaller volumes.”

Because traditional automation doesn’t lend itself to high-mix, low-volume, the company needed a much more flexible approach. Robotics – and especially Universal Robots – offered that flexibility and delivered on a wide breadth of different parts with the same equipment.

Raymath, like most manufacturers, struggled to fill manufacturing and welding positions, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. Nick Ogle, a Raymath robotics specialist, says that the cobot units weld almost 50 percent faster than manual welding and sometimes more, which helps Raymath produce parts more quickly with its existing staff. It also allows the company to support higher volume orders.

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Nick Ogle (right), a manual welder by trade, programs the UR cobot-based TIG welder from THG Automation, developed by THG CEO Matt Hendey (left) and his team.

With robotic welding, fixtures, push angles, speed and heat are the same every time, which leads to faster, more consistent and higher quality welds than manual welding. Cobot arms can also reach all the way around a part in ways a human welder can’t, so almost all welds can be done without rotating the part. And with fewer starts and stops, robotic welding produces a cleaner weld that also reduces required grinding time.

As a high-mix shop, Raymath started with about 20 different parts on the cobot-based MIG welding system, but LeFevre quickly saw new opportunities to add more parts.

“Within two months, we decided to buy a second cobot because we had filled up the first one with orders,” he says. “And the guys, including Nick who is our leader in that area, were picking up on the programming as fast as we could add parts. We had people coming to us saying, ‘This would be a good part to put on the THG unit.’”

Tackling aluminum

At Raymath, two robot operators typically run two THG welding cells each, depending on workload and cycle times. The operators typically run one robot, hit start and while that one’s running, they load the other one.

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Larry Dare, CNC machining supervisor at Raymath, had no prior robotics experience, but considered the programming to be straightforward.

“They jump back and forth,” Ogle explains. “Seeing all four cells run at the same time is pretty gratifying, knowing you’re pushing that much product out the door that much faster.”

For one aluminum part, weld times were reduced from 15 min./part manually to 5 or 6 min./part; for another, weld times shrunk from 3 to 4 min. each to 30 to 40 sec.

Cobots handle hard-to-staff processes with half the number of operators, and they weld at twice the speed, resulting in four times the productivity. But LeFevre says it’s the opportunity cost that he views as the most invaluable.

“There was business that we were able to take on that we never would have had the manpower or ability to do,” he says. “It builds a better relationship with our customers. How you measure that is hard to tell, but I know it’s extremely valuable.”

Complex aluminum welding was one of Raymath’s biggest challenges for growth, as it was all TIG welded by hand with precise welds on top and underneath with difficult angles and heat settings and multiple moving parts. After seeing success in MIG welding, LeFevre approached THG for a TIG solution.

“It was an extension of what we were doing with our MIG welding, so adding TIG was pretty seamless,” THG’s Hendey says. “Once you get the precision and everything down, the THG unit can make a very good TIG weld and can do it anywhere from two to six times faster than doing it by hand.”

Hendey notes that while robotic MIG welding can be applied to many different materials and applications, it may be difficult for manufacturers to justify a MIG system for aluminum parts plus a TIG system for stainless parts, especially at low volumes. With the THG cold wire feed push/pull TIG system, however, Raymath can weld stainless and aluminum parts with the same system.

The UR cobots in the THG system can also work around fixtured parts in one process. Some parts are much larger than the table on which they’re being welded, so those parts are fixtured so the TIG welding occurs on the table while the rest of the part hangs off the edge.

Easy programming

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Beyond welding, Raymath also turned to UR for its machine tending automation needs, adding the UR cobot-based ProFeeder machining cells from ProCobots to its two 3- and 5-axis Hurco CNC machines.

“I’m always looking at ease of use, and I found that UR’s programming method was probably better than anyone’s out there,” LeFevre says. “Knowing that we were going to change parts all the time, I wanted to find a solution where the programming and the implementation was as easy as possible. Universal Robots fit the bill.”

Hendey adds, “With UR, unlike other robot brands, you get an open platform. There’s a lot of templates and functionality already built into the software, and the capabilities through the load-sensing that they offer coupled with the intrinsic safety allows it to be collaborative.” In addition, the open platform allowed THG to create a customized robotic welding system with its own software to address customer needs.

In that regard, THG created URCaps (software handshakes between the UR cobot and peripherals) that made the welding system easy to use, even for operators without previous robotics experience. Ogle, a manual welder by trade, simply moved the cobot arm to the correct angle for the weld and used the teach pendant to save the point. “This is the first time I’ve ever used collaborative robots, and I was very surprised at the ease of use,” he says.

The ease of use is a key element of the THG design. While THG provides one to three days of training for new systems, “a lot of times, customers already have an application running before we even show up,” Hendey says. “When they call us down the road, it’s not, ‘how do we make this thing work?’; it’s ‘now that I know how to do all this stuff, I want to get into the more advanced functionality of it.’”

CNC machine tending

Beyond welding, Raymath also turned to UR for its machine tending automation needs, adding UR cobot-based ProFeeder machining cells from ProCobots to its two 3- and 5-axis Hurco CNC machines.

“Using the ProCobots Hurco solution seemed like a natural fit for us,” LeFevre says. “We already had Hurco units, and we loved the conversational programming that goes on there.”

As was the case with the welding application, Larry Dare, the CNC machining supervisor at Raymath, had never worked with robots. But, according to LeFevre, he quickly became efficient at making the system work well. Now, Dare is able to be at his desk tending to paperwork while the Hurcos are running in the background. He only needs to tend to them when they need parts. This allows the second shift to simply monitor the robotic systems while running other machines. When the first shift arrives the next morning, the systems are still running without requiring someone on third shift tending to them.

“We get 24 hours of machining time where we’ve never been able to get that before,” LeFevre says. That lights-out processing gives Raymath more than a 600 percent productivity boost in machining, getting double the hours with the same number of workers.

ProCobots provided training and has simplified the systems over time with software updates. Dare says, “It’s really just me and one guy on second shift, but with the training we’ve had, we’re usually able to troubleshoot problems ourselves and program the new parts.”

Raymath expects to continue its growth-through-automation strategy, likely this time with press brake tending and grinding, which is a dirty, dusty job that’s perfect for robotics. And, if business needs change, UR cobots can easily be redeployed into other applications.

Ongoing returns

“Any time you’re investing in a new technology, you’re going in with the belief that the ROI is going to be right,” LeFevre says. “With these units, we’re looking at a one-year ROI.”

While immediate ROI is easy to measure from a labor-saving standpoint, he emphasizes the ongoing return from additional opportunities and growth the technology provides. And, as the company grows, LeFevre expects to continue to grow Raymath’s workforce that will be employed in more interesting, valuable jobs. “We are hoping to use the cobots to attract talent,” he says. “We want to be known as a technology company that happens to do metal parts.”

“People believe robots take away jobs, but I will always say robots add jobs,” he concludes. “The more you can do for your customer, the more jobs you’re going to end up having. For every robot, I’ve probably added four people.”

Raymath

THG Automation

Universal Robots

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