Automating The Welding Fabricators Of America

Lean is now the mantra of your customers. You can stand by and watch, or you can be part of their solution.

I can imagine that many of you opened your eyes on January 1 of this new year and said, “It’s got to be better this year because last year was a real drag.” That being said, the change isn’t going to just happen. The questions have to be asked:

  • What am I going to do to make my year more productive, personally and for my employer?
  • What can I do, given the continued challenges of a very slowly improving economy, to make a difference in my top and bottom line?
  • What new opportunities are out there that haven’t already been addressed by everyone else who promotes and sells welding and cutting products?
Multi-arm Robot

Utilizing coordinated motion and vision part and seam analysis, multi-arm robots work in tandem to locate and complete welds in the proper location, thus reducing cycle time and improving parts placement.

Why don’t we take a look at it from a different perspective. What do you think your customers were thinking when they opened their eyes on January 1? Yeah, they want to sell more of their products just like us, but they also have a burning desire—no, more of a burning need—to cut costs. They know that they must constantly trim their manufacturing costs if they intend to be alive, let alone be profitable. Let’s face it, the manufacturing capabilities of China and India aren’t going away and they are continually improving! And that, my friends, is where you come into the picture. Never has there been a better time to develop an in-depth relationship with the welding fabricators of America than right now. They need you as much as you need them.

When was the last time you visited your customer and they told you that they just reorganized and added staff to the weld or manufacturing engineering group? Or how about the appointment with the materials management group where they wanted to keep your pricing just the way it is for the next year? Guess what, we are never going to hear any of this, especially as we come out of this economic trough. Lean is going to be the mantra and it’s going to be the theme for as long as people have a memory of 2009—which I suspect will be for a long time. So we can wait, or we can go on the attack.

Another way to look at it is simply this: If you don’t provide the support to your customer to reduce their manufacturing costs, then it will be provided by another source. That source may be a North American-based provider or it may very well be your counterpart on another continent. Unfortunately, this is the environment for the American manufacturer today. Either you get competitive or you die. Look around and see what happened over the past 18 months. We must be part of the solution, or we will ultimately become a part of the problem. Your customers need you, and they need you now!

Manufacturing Landscape Today
Over the course of the past ten years, the manufacturing community has incrementally improved its throughput utilizing various forms of automation. Coupled with new process innovations and cost-effective equipment, welding fabrication costs have been reduced…incrementally. The nagging problem that continues to be an issue is batch size and the costs associated with lower-volume production. The time and cost to change from one part to another absorbed a portion of the savings gained from incorporating automation. Couple fixturing costs per part and the investment becomes difficult to justify.

Today, the alternatives have improved dramatically. Technology has continued to improve the cost-effectiveness, reliability and overall effectiveness of robotic and hard-automation products. Even those companies that have utilized automation over the past ten years are seeing dra`matic improvements in productivity by using new, improved programming and vision capabilities as part of their welding fabrication processes.

Ease of Programming – The programming software used today by the robot manufacturers utilizes techniques and concepts that we use in our day-to-day computer programs. Sequencing through the programming of a part has been dramatically improved, shortening the time to program and allowing less “computer-oriented” operators to easily maneuver the robot and/or hard automation systems.

Advanced Software Development – To meet the demands of manufacturers that weld thin-gauge sheet metal for automotive components to those who are fabricating assemblies for large earth moving equipment, advanced software is now available to meet the needs of all. Whether it’s part fit-up or heat input that is challenging the fabricator, there are new software products available to overcome many of the nagging problems associated with automated welding.

Through Arc Seam Tracking (TAST) automatically adjusts the robot’s vertical and lateral trajectory to compensate for part warping or misplacement.

Adaptive TAST maintains a constant fill for groove weld joints with a varying volume, which is an ideal solution for structural steel and large component weldments.

Root Pass Memorization and Multi Pass Offset provide a multiple pass capability that has been a challenge to all manufacturers that weld thick plate.

Vision Systems – One of the most exciting technologies introduced to date is the integration of vision into automated systems. This is a major step in the development of robots duplicating human motion. Camera systems available today utilize discreet and/or laser-based images that allow the automated system to:

  • Locate parts
  • Determine orientation of the part for picking or welding
  • Locate seams
  • Determine flaws and imperfections.

Automated systems have become very affordable. The cost of these new technologies has dropped dramatically and thus has broadened the customer base that can afford these solutions.

Differentiation and the Value Proposition
If your customer is similar to most, staying up with technology is becoming more and more of a challenge because things are changing so quickly, and there is little free time to do the appropriate research. What a great opportunity to outdistance your competitor! There is a vast array of materials available for reference and use in supporting your automation initiative. Every manufacturer of robotic and hard automation welding solutions has a Web site that provides case studies and application examples that will closely match your needs. Your first stop should be the Web site of the Robotic Industries Association (RIA) at www.robotics.org.

Multiple Robot Fabrication Station

A multiple robot fabrication station is coordinated to perform arc welding on a frame assembly.

In addition, there are thousands of articles available which can be used for personal education, training and presentations to your customer. There are even articles that document the manufacturers that made the move to fabricate overseas and then have come back because it didn’t provide the savings they had hoped to achieve. The online Welding & Gases Today magazine has links to many of these articles.

At the most recent RIA Forum held on January 20-22, 2010, Scott Klososky of Future Point of View LLC presented an intriguing look at technology from now to the “not too distant future.” One of the key messages that came out of the discussion is that we are living in an age in which change is moving faster than we can really comprehend. It’s exciting but it requires us to be hungrier to learn and more passionate toward implementing change if we are going to make an impact in our own personal environments. We can watch and let it happen or we can utilize it, shape it and make it a part of our lives.

Our customers need us to be a vehicle for change. Their existence demands that we constantly provide new ideas and technologies to help them improve their operations. What better way is there to have true customer intimacy than by being a part of their success and growth? What better way to make your own personal business plan a success in 2010? It will be the best thing you can do to make a difference and make this year your best ever.

Never has there been a better time to develop an in-depth relationship with the welding fabricators of America than right now. They need you as much as you need them.

Robotic ROI References

There are thousands of articles available which can be used for personal education, training and presentations to your customer. Start with the Web site of the Robotic Industries Association at www.robotics.org. There are even articles that document the manufacturers that made the move to fabricate overseas and then have come back because it didn’t provide the savings they had hoped to achieve. Some examples:

Made (again) in America – The rising cost of labor and shipping abroad are driving manufacturing back to the U.S. So are the logistics of dealing with far-flung suppliers – by Stephanie N. Mehta, Fortune Magazine

Improving Productivity with Capital Justification and ROI by Dale Arndt, Fanuc Robotics, Canada 1/2009

Automation-Vision RevolutionAs technology becomes more affordable, robots with human-like eyesight are no longer just science fiction – by Gerald Jackson, 12/2009

Robot GuidanceSystems integrators are combining a variety of image sensors and robots to speed industrial automation tasks – by Andrew Wilson, Vision Systems and Design, 11/2009

Gases and Welding Distributors Association
Christopher A. Bailey Meet the Author
Christopher A. Bailey is general manager of the automation division at The Lincoln Electric Company, headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, and on the Web at www.lincolnelectric.com.