Automation, the Future of Welding?

The manufacturing industry has seen the challenge to stay profitable despite a weakened economy and a decline in skilled workforce (especially welders). Many companies are turning to robotic automation to meet their welding needs. Who’s doing it and what are the benefits to end users?

Nonautomotive manufacturers that employ the aid of automation are in the minority. Only about 14 percent of other industries have invested in automation. However, more and more companies are considering the option. Distributors, management, and end-users desirous of staying current should embrace the technology. This is the future, the near future. Distributors especially don’t want to be caught off guard. Customers will move on as soon as they see a distributor isn’t keeping up.

Will Welders be Replaced?

This is a frightening thought for welders. Robotic automation can help keep manufacturing cost-effective, but a successful process requires real people. A skilled welder is required to program the robot. They must know the welding process and understand its limitations. Successful addition of automated cells will help a company gain profitability. A fiscally healthy, growing company means more jobs, not less. Welders with robotics training become even more valuable to employers because of their versatility.

Limitations

Work cells can do about 80 percent of most manufacturing welding jobs. Experienced welders are still going to be needed in the future, not only for the 20 percent. Welders need to program and operate the robot. The robot will lay the bead, but it will be skilled welder operators, not computer programmers, teaching the robots what to do.

Robots are good at repeatability, but not variation where human judgment is needed. The TIG process will need variation removed to be done by robot. Skilled human welders will be needed in a process that requires judgment.

Up the supply chain, it is the relationships that distributors build with customers that will forge their success. Distributors that desire to help their customers stay current with the latest welding advances will see them succeed. Those who don’t keep up and don’t remain competitive will lose profitability. Distributors do well to take the initiative to learn the technology themselves. When a distributor can become a trusted resource with the expertise to help their customer grow, the relationship between dealer and manufacturer will be a mutually beneficial one.

Implementation

Pre-engineered systems allow ease of implementation and a faster return on investment compared to customized cells. The out-of-box system comes with bases, leveling feet, etc. You simply install the cell on the assembly line. Assembly is fairly simple. (For those getting started, find the most repeatable process on the line. Train the robot to do the job.)

Training is integral to success. Your robotic welding provider should have a tested training program. The welder operator should be an experienced welder who takes pride in his/her work – a prerequisite for robotics training. Support should be available to the welder operator and the company in case the line goes down.

Results

An automated robotic welding cell will quickly supply you with consistent quality. You should expect productivity gains of three to one. In many cases, return on investment can be seen in less than two years. Robotic welding is often started near the beginning of a manufacturing line. When this is the case the high-quality of the weld will result in the correct size weld and little spatter. Without needing to stop for quality issues or to clean up, the entire line benefits.

Automation really can be a win-win for distributors, customers, and end users. But the game isn’t over here. Just because you’ve installed an automated cell or two, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to worry about it. Antiquated equipment can be a damper to a company’s profitability. New technologies are always in sight. Watch for arc data monitoring, for example. Being willing to move forward with automation and technological advances in welding ensures continued profitability in the globally competitive marketplace.

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