Recent years have brought a massive rise in the adoption of welding systems powered by collaborative robots (cobots). So much so that welding is currently the fastest growing application segment for Universal Robots’ customers.
The drivers for this surge in demand for cobot-based welding solutions and the key trends having the most impact are covered in this article.
The global shortage of skilled welders is the No. 1 driver of cobot welder adoption in North America and beyond. And it shows no signs of abating. In fact, the American Welding Society predicts that by 2027 the United States will require 361,000 new welding professionals to meet demand. Companies continue to struggle to hire and retain skilled welders, and with unemployment at a 50-year low, there is little chance the situation will improve.
Cobot welders address these labor challenges by boosting existing workforce productivity. For example, instead of spending time on simple, repetitive welds, welders can train the cobot welder to perform such tasks – a process that typically takes just minutes to complete. Before the cobot welder revolution, the common theme was “I can weld those parts before you can program the robot.” Today, it is dramatically different.
Often, a cobot welder and operator work in tandem; the operator starts the cobot welder and while the cobot is working, the operator fixtures up the next parts to be welded. It is not uncommon to see deployments of two or more cobot welders being overseen by one operator – with an immediate boost to productivity soon following. Additional benefits include reduced scrap, no more over-welding (and the required grinding) and consistent welding performance 24/7.
Because the cobot welder takes care of the Three Ds – tasks that are dull, dirty and dangerous – the welding operator is freed up to prep parts, inspect for quality and, most importantly, handle the creative and challenging welds that makes welding a highly skilled and rewarding career.
Despite investment in training programs by various state and local governments to attract millennials and Gen Zs to manufacturing careers, expect the shortfall of welders to remain an issue in the years ahead. In that same breath, however, expect cobot welder demand to remain high as companies strive to boost productivity, reduce waste and improve working conditions for welders.
Both a driver of adoption and an important trend, the emergence of off-the-shelf cobot welding solutions enables quick, safe and effective deployments – even by people completely new to automation. We expect 2023 to be the year for standard welding solutions to really shine.
These off-the-shelf cobot welding solutions drive productivity and enable automation deployments with an absolute minimum of downtime. Universal Robots’ welding channel grew more than 80 percent in 2022 as new turnkey cobot welders hit factory floors worldwide.
Creating a cobot welder requires specialist hardware, software and application development in addition to sensors and other accessories. For almost a decade, Universal Robots has worked closely with partners and OEMs to support the development of ready-out-of-the-box cobot welding solutions and a lot has changed in that time.
At a trade show five years ago, attendees might have expected to see a handful of cobot welding tools. At Fabtech 2022, we counted more than 25 welding systems based on Universal Robots’ cobots. The typical questions people ask have also changed from “What is a cobot?” to “How can I find a cobot solution tailored to my specific application requirements?”
This focus on applications is a major trend on the customer side. It is driving companies to do more due diligence to ensure that the system will work for their welding application, which is a great thing. Investments in unproven, unsuitable technologies are better made elsewhere.
Cobot welders have come a long way in a short time. In fact, the ever-expanding types of welds and materials that cobot welders can handle is a major trend driving adoption. The earliest cobot welders tackled the low hanging fruit – light and simple linear and circular welds, predominantly in air-cooled MIG-based welding applications.
The success of cobot welding systems in industrial applications inspired more OEMs to enter the cobot welder space, adding new capabilities and functionality along the way, from water-cooled systems and TIG and laser welding to oxyfuel and plasma cutting, hardfacing, complex weaves and through-the-arc-seam tracking. Also, 7th-axis and range extenders have emerged in recent years that greatly expand cobot welders’ reach and range, enabling a host of new applications.
At the same time, programming methods and interfaces have become more intuitive than ever before, which allows companies of all skill levels to deploy cobot welders quickly and effectively. It’s not at all uncommon for welders to learn how to program the latest cobot welders in a matter of minutes, minimizing downtime, boosting productivity and enabling them to add “robot operator” to their skillset.
The best way to discover the usability and benefits of cobot welders is to see them in action. Potential customers should ask the cobot welder provider for a hands-on demo and bring along some parts for testing.
The industry should expect to see further innovation in the months and years ahead as Universal Robots’ partners and other OEMs create solutions across the entire spectrum of welding workflows.