For welders in Alberta, Canada, the work is plentiful, and the salary is high. That’s because – like most everywhere else – there’s a shortage of experienced individuals to do the job. In more remote areas, the problem is compounded. It’s hard to recruit any type of worker to a far-flung location, even when the money’s good.
Onsite3D, a virtual engineering and construction firm, knows the situation all too well. The company is based in Calgary with repair and maintenance projects spread across the country, including locations in the wilds of northwest Alberta. Regularly, Onsite3D is tasked with bringing older industrial facilities up to code, and often these projects are situated off the beaten path. These facilities fall under the categories of oil and gas, power and utility, mining and forestry, as well as civil and infrastructure.
The work is wide ranging – from engineering and construction of the actual facilities to welding and manufacturing the new components that these locations will need. Wade Eno, CEO of RoboFab, a division of Onsite3D that launched in 2019, equates these projects to taking an old run-down, rusted-out station wagon and doing whatever it takes to make it operational and able to pass inspection.
“We study these facilities from an asset management perspective, looking at the individual components to understand their lifecycle,” he says. “As an example, think about moving commodities that are highly corrosive through an industrial piping system. The lifecycle of this type of system is determined by the material grades that were used, the engineering involved and how they were manufactured. Unfortunately, there was a time when these systems weren’t built with longevity in mind.”
To identify the corroded, hazardous piping systems in these facilities – while also disrupting the traditional approach of field engineering and construction – Onsite3D uses burgeoning technologies like laser scanning and virtual reality. Not only is less staff required, but the results are also often more precise.
“Onsite3D uses Lidar to scan an industrial facility to create a full 3-D model of the site in virtual reality with millimeter accuracy,” Eno explains. “Using CAD software, we can build out construction jobs and simulate the tasks so that we can de-risk them from a cost and scheduling standpoint.”
To further combat the challenge of finding quality staff for on-site work, the company launched RoboFab, Onsite3D’s offshoot division headed up by Eno, that relies on two Spool Welding Robots (SWRs) from Novarc Technologies Inc. Instead of searching high and low for welders to do the work in these remote areas, piping systems can now be robotically manufactured at RoboFab’s headquarters in Grand Prairie, Alberta, and trucked to their final destination for installation.
Destined for change
When it comes to new equipment and technologies, Eno says that he only “invests in the inevitable.” When faced with the decision to automate a manufacturing process, he asks himself questions about the future, such as whether there will be more welding robots in use. If the answer is yes, he knows what to do.
“When it came time to invest in the SWR, I asked myself: Will welding robots be used to handle process pipe?” he recalls. “Because the answer was yes, I knew we needed to invest in them, but my next thought was that I needed to get these robots now because they’re only going to become exponentially smarter through their AI.”
The artificial intelligence driving Novarc’s SWRs can learn quickly in part because it doesn’t fatigue and is very hyper-focused. Eno’s next question, therefore, was whether the SWR could eventually figure out rudimentary tasks on its own, such as welding from root to cap without the need of an operator. Based on the new advancements that Novarc is releasing onto the market, such as its NovEye technology, the answer is yes; it’s inevitable, and Eno was on board.
Originally designed for pipe, small pressure vessel and other types of roll welding, Novarc’s SWR is a collaborative robot that works in tandem with an operator to increase their overall productivity. The overriding goal is for junior welders to supervise the robot as it handles various pipe welding processes that they may have not yet perfected.
Knowing that robotic pipe welding was an inevitability wasn’t enough, though. Eno visited Novarc’s headquarters multiple times to talk to the team there and learn more. After investing in the first SWR, the next goal was to prove that it could be efficient and produce quality results.
“At this point, we’ve done that in spades,” he says, “so we expanded to a second unit to further our fixed part of the process. Now we have double the capacity. We run the two robots in tandem, side by side.”
Get in the game
After both SWRs were in place and in production, there was more for Eno and the team at RoboFab to learn. He says that pretty quickly, the generational gaps of understanding the digital world were on full display.
“The initial plan was to train our welders that have conventional experience,” he explains. “We found out, however, that the apprentices and the young new welders pick up the process in lightning speed compared to the older guys. The 18- to 27-year-olds pick it up in a matter of days.”
Part of that is thanks to the industry term “gamification,” which is exactly how it sounds: utilizing video game environments and structures to replicate real-life environments into the control paths of a machine. At its heart, the SWR is a controller and a screen connected to a robot.
“This newest generation grew up with controllers and screens, so this is second nature to them,” Eno says. “Move this function to the right to get this result and click this button to get another result. They trust the robot to do what they tell it to whereas the conventional guys are constantly second guessing it.”
When it comes to recruiting new welders and operators, the SWR incorporates more of what’s intriguing to them: technology, data science, machine operations and robotics. That’s what the next generation is attracted to. They’re not attracted to long, hard days of backbreaking general labor.
“At first, I focused primarily on integrating the robots with our experienced staff because originally, the concern was whether first-year apprentices could do pressure welds,” Eno says. “In our quality control group discussions, we’d be talking about following industry standards and whether these young welders could be trained to do pressure weld production within all of the industry codes and standards.
“As it turns out, that, too, was inevitable,” he says. “There was a lot of back and forth and waiting on inspector approvals, but last Friday, we certified our very first apprentice with all of the industry-required welding credentials.”
Another thing that’s inevitable is that even these robotic processes aren’t set in stone. Innovative companies all around the globe are in the process of developing new and exciting technologies for a variety of welding applications.
“Unlike traditional welding, the younger generation knows they’re not getting introduced to a process that will be used for the next 20 years,” Eno says. “In a few years, it could be replaced with something new. They understand how fast things can change with technology, and they will be ready for it.”
Essentially, the issue at hand is adapting to an ever-changing world. But that’s basically the concept on which Onsite3D was founded.
“When we got into laser scanning and using drones for survey measurements at Onsite3D, no one really knew about it,” Eno says. “Everyone said it wouldn’t work and that it would be an uphill battle. But we were committed because we knew this was going to be the inevitable future of site work.
“Early on, we would compare the laser scanning method to our conventional skill sets, and 95 percent of the time, any errors that we incurred happened when we were doing things the conventional way,” he adds. “At some point, we knew we could trust the technology more than our own experience. In fact, most of our competitors in laser scanning are people that we trained.”
Once Onsite3D’s methods became commercialized and widely accepted, the team knew that they couldn’t have one division that was super advanced while the other division was doing things the old-school way. This was especially critical knowing that a large portion of the budget was being spent on manufacturing and site construction.
“Specifically, we had to move away from the archaic on-site process of running mobile, fossil fuel-burning welders out in the rain under a tent to more of a factory-style workflow where every process is calculated and based on data,” Eno explains. “Knowing that welding was one of the highest skilled tasks but also the highest paid task that still had the highest turnover, we had to make a change.”
As was true with Onsite3D’s use of Lidar technology, RoboFab is now a first adopter of off-site robotic pipe welding and collaborative pipe welding – thanks to the implementation of Novarc’s SWR. And as before, the likelihood is that Eno and his team will prove that it works, commercialize it and open the door for the competitors that will follow.
“As much as it creates competition, it also creates awareness,” Eno says. “From a holistic view, it’s important for everyone to expand out of their own bubble and create more industry acknowledgement. If it’s just us getting gold medals all the time, no one cares. If there’s an antagonist in the storyline, some people might start paying attention.”