To optimize workflow and increase capacity, manufacturers look to advanced technologies, including robotic automation, to meet demand and stay competitive. Successfully implementing these tools, however, can bring to light a myriad of questions pertaining to workflow, equipment, workforce and more.
Whether self-integrating a robot system or partnering with a robot integrator or supplier, manufacturers should obtain as much information as possible about their facility’s production area, labor force and potential equipment being purchased. Doing a bit of homework in the early stages of procurement can go a long way toward creating a smooth integration process for optimized uptime.
While expertly designed to enhance operations, certain aspects of robotic welding workcells may cause manufacturers to pause and think before integration. With that in mind, there are several concepts of which they should take note to be workcell ready.
From faster cycle times for increased production throughput to reduced part rework for improved product quality, the meticulous planning for robotic automation is key to transformative success. To reach future goals, manufacturers should have a clear picture of current processes and what is needed to optimize operations. While this concept may seem straightforward, there are many potential reasons to rationalize automation. From understanding how much automation is required for a particular process (single-step versus multi-process) to knowing how parts will be transferred, there is much to consider.
A solid grasp for concepts like target cycles per minute/day/hour and acceptable failures per hour/day/ minute are advised, as well. Even simply understanding the amount of time needed to realize payback on an investment is good to know. Similarly, the concept of part repeatability should not be overlooked. To ensure the most fluid process, it is vital to ensure that parts are as accurate as possible, following strict specifications and tolerances.
Traditionally, based on size alone, implementing a high-performance robotic welding workcell has been a challenge for many small to medium-sized manufacturers with limited floorspace availability. Typically consisting of two or more robots with ancillary equipment, safeguarding and controller cabinets, as well as a part positioner with a machined base, less space-efficient legacy workcells were not a viable option when they first appeared on the scene for many manufacturers.
Thanks to more affordable, spacesaving robots and pre-engineered workcells with innovative designs and peripherals, successful robotic workcell integration is now an achievable goal. From pre-engineered single- or dual-station workcells that feature a space-saving common base for the robot and positioner(s) or table(s) to extremely compact welding workcells that occupy 25 sq. ft. or less of floorspace, multiple solutions now exist to accommodate the welding of small parts and subassemblies.
For job shops that need the utmost flexibility, collaborative robotic welding workcells now offer a complete, portable option for fabricating small to medium-sized parts. Essentially shrinking the size of a robotic workcell down to the dimensions of a weld table, these economical solutions come with all the peripherals needed to expertly replace or supplement manual welding.
From a 10-kg payload collaborative robot with over a 1,300-mm maximum working range to a retractable arc curtain, built-in exhaust hood, weld torch with power supply and more, these solutions are quickly becoming a “go to” for manufacturers looking to maintain safe collaborative operation while processing parts up to 500 mm H by 2,000 mm W by 800 mm D.
Another concept saving space on the shop floor where more permanent workcells are concerned is the use of fixture mounting systems for headstock/tailstock positioners where part positioners can be lagged directly to the floor. This eliminates the need for high-precision machined bases and tooling.
Ethernet I/O requirements to process options for torches, reamers, HMIs, vision systems, tip changers, seam tracking/finding packages and more, there are multiple concepts to consider where more permanent single- or dualstation workcells are concerned. For collaborative welding workcells, wire spool holders and shielding gas bottle holders may have to be added.
In conjunction with space-saving solutions, manufacturers should be mindful of the power requirements needed to fully operate robotic welding workcell equipment at full load (i.e., robots moving, positioners working, weld power on, etc.). While this specification depends on the system being used, 480V 3-phase is typically standard in the United States. Singlephase power or a different voltage can be supported as well, depending on the robot selected, but a different controller or transformer is needed to make the accommodation. Typical maximum amperage load can vary from 20 to over 200 amps, primarily depending on the number of welding power supplies used.
Plants with a minimum short circuit current rating (SSCR) standard must also pay attention to the maximum level SCCR for which any given machine is rated and can increase this to meet their needs with an isolation transformer.
In addition to power, some equipment requires compressed air to be driven. For example, specific brand torch cleaners use shop air to acuate the cleaning spindle. Accessories like laser sensors use air to open guarding doors. While most of these accessories require 90 psi to 100 psi, they can vary by system.
While many welding workcells are integrated into production to supplement the manual welding of parts for better worker utilization, sometimes robotic workcells are used to replace manual welding altogether – predominantly due to worker unavailability – to increase product throughput and quality. Either way, company leaders need to take prudent steps to facilitate a seamless integration process where employee morale is maintained.
While the automation of what were assumed human jobs has the perceived potential to displace workers, companies will stay more productive and competitive for maximum ROI by redeploying skilled welders to custom and skilled work or other value-added tasks within the organization. Proven redeployment positions include: converting current welders into quality inspectors, transitioning extrovert employees into sales or technical support, or creating robotic workcell champions – employees fully dedicated to robotic workcell programming, utilization and maintenance.
Overall, manufacturers who realize that scaling production pain points through robotic automation is only part of the equation will be well-situated to help workers adjust to new processes and equipment. Remember, human welders may be slower than robots, but they have intuition and learned skills that help overcome a wide range of obstacles, such as part flaws, gaps and odd geometries; therefore, reusing skilled professionals is ideal to peak production performance.
Whether hiring new workers or redeploying current employees, company leaders should assess the required skilled sets, then facilitate the training needed to successfully operate the workcell. Skilled welders are qualified to teach those skills to the robot.
While robot programming for robotic welding is easier than ever – thanks to intuitive weld interfaces and lead-toteach capability – robot programming and basic maintenance training taught at an IACET-accredited training facility, such as Yaskawa Academy, is usually suggested. Comprehensive education like this provides hands-on instruction in application-specific classrooms and high-tech labs. It is also the best way to ensure robot uptime and worker safety.
Select robot OEMs offer other unique solutions, including onsite training and train-the-trainer programs. Supplemental training for robot maintenance, troubleshooting and repair can be gained through user-friendly software platforms, like RobotPro.
Understanding the “why” behind the need is imperative. Once that is determined, the minute details can be worked out. Partnering with an experienced robot integrator or supplier and having a knowledgeable expert perform an on-site visit will help to answer many questions. This process should also help to set clear benchmarks for the solution selection process. Overall, adhering to a budget for a realistic target payback period is suggested.
Manufacturers that choose to integrate robotic welding workcells may quickly find a need for other compact robotic solutions. For example, manufacturers concerned about supply chain shortages and lead times for piece parts might consider the robotic 3-D printing of parts. Just as next-generation 3-D printers with advanced servo technology offer advanced motion control over stepper motors, robots are serving to transform additive applications.
Their excellent path performance, rigid mechanical structure and IP ratings – combined with advanced anti-vibration control and multi-axis capability – make select 6-axis robots an ideal choice. Similarly, pre-engineered solutions for machine tending and endof-line palletizing are other good options to consider.
Regardless of the workcell and peripherals chosen, it is always helpful to maintain a continuous improvement mindset throughout the entire selection process and beyond. Manufacturers that seek to understand from the beginning should be well-positioned to be workcell ready.