Selling the benefits of automation to end-users
A fragile economy coupled with a rapidly declining workforce of skilled welders has put a significant strain on manufacturers. Companies are struggling to find viable options to stay profitable, and slowly, these manufacturers are turning to robotic automation.
Currently, only about 14 percent of nonautomotive manufacturers have implemented robotic automation. However, we are slowly seeing an increase in companies looking into automation. The tide is turning, and customers are automating out of necessity.
Everyone in the welding industry—distributors, management and end-users—should embrace robotic welding as an option, because automation is a key element to the future of manufacturing. A distributor should not be caught off guard when a customer comes for guidance on adding automated cells.
The Future of Manufacturing
The shortage of a skilled workforce is a very significant factor driving companies to automate. More welders are retiring every year, leaving manufacturers scrambling to fill the gap. Robotic automation can be a feasible solution to help keep American manufacturing cost-competitive. This does not mean, however, that robots are replacing humans. A successful robotic welding process needs a human to program the robot, and that person needs to understand what the welding process is and the limitations of the welding process.
What is frightening for most welding operators is that they believe a robot will replace him or her. A company that embraces automation technology—and implements it correctly—will be profitable and grow. Growth means more jobs, not less. Also, a benefit of robotic automation for welders is that the additional training makes them more valuable to the company, essentially enhancing job security.
Automation is not the answer for all welding applications, and an experienced welder is crucial for a successful robotic welding process. An experienced welder will learn to operate a robot more effectively than an experienced computer programmer. The robot lays the bead, but it’s the operator’s skilled judgment that teaches the robot what it should do.
Successful distributors credit the long-term relationships with their customers, developed over the years, as the cornerstone of their success. But with the state of the industry as mentioned above, those customers face the loss of business if they become uncompetitive. Distributors have the chance to present robotic automation to their customers as part of their service portfolio. Distributors who have worked to establish trust with their customers will remain competitive and profitable by anticipating the needs of their customers and offering them a full automation solution. The distributor can make the investment and learn the technology to bring that expertise in-house and create a foundation to make it easy for the customer to grow, allowing the distributor and the customer to solidify their relationship.
Implementing robotic automation is not as painful as may be perceived. It is anticipated that many who move to automation will choose a pre-engineered system over a customized solution, based on its ease of implementation and the more immediate return on investment. A pre-engineered work cell basically is an out-of-the-box welding solution. It comes with its own bases with leveling feet. You simply install the entire cell on the assembly line, assemble two or three sections, and the customer typically is ready to weld.
These work cells can do about 80 percent of the welding jobs in a manufacturing facility. Repeatability and quality are the most immediate benefits to pre-engineered systems. The key is to find the most repeatable process on the line and then train the robot to do the job. A good expectation on productivity gain is three to one. What this means is that the robot is paying the end-user two salaries for each shift that is run. Paybacks are quick, usually well under two years.
Quality is another immediate benefit. When a robot is correctly implemented and the upstream processes are spot-on and efficient, the robot will lay the correct size weld with little spatter. With no time needed downstream to clean up spatter, it’s a more productive line.
Repeatability vs. Variation
As stated previously, a robot is good at repeatability and not judgment. That is why it is essential that the robot is fit to the right application. For instance, the TIG process is very heavy on judgment and really requires a skilled welder to be done correctly. Some TIG welding jobs are suitable for robots as long as variation is squeezed out of the process. That is really the key—get the variation out of the process in order for the robot to be as efficient as possible. So robotics contribute to quality and productivity, which is the essential task of manufacturing. To drive the cost out of manufacturing, the variation must be removed.
Find an Expert Partner
For all the reasons stated already, working automation into the business plan can be a win-win for both distributors and their customers. Distributors have been wary because of worry of a bad outcome and not having enough technical knowledge to meet the needs of their customers. However, this does not mean that the distributor needs to begin at square one and become an expert on robotic automation technology. The key is to align the distributorship with the right robotic vendor who can offer the expertise and bridge the technology gap when you need it.
Finding the right vendor partner requires some homework. There are suppliers of robotic technology that serve various industries. These robots do applications ranging from material handling to gluing and sealant deposition. You do not want to partner with anyone else except a company that specializes in arc welding automation. You need a vendor with the technical expertise in arc welding, and who has made the investment in its people and has degreed welding engineers on staff.
Also find a partner that has a commitment to innovation. Some manufacturers think that once they automate their production, then it’s done and they never have to worry about it. Over the years, profitability can be hampered by using antiquated equipment. There are so many new technologies on the horizon, such as arc data monitoring, and distributors and customers can align with someone who can provide the equipment and the knowledge to integrate new technology as it becomes available.
Lastly, look for a partner that values the distributor channel. Distributors are the ones with the relationship with the customer, and that relationship is golden. You, the distributor, bring the business to your robotic partner, and you want a partner that will honor that relationship and work with you, not around you. Aligning with a reputable vendor partner that has the expertise and capability to meet the needs of the customer and still establishes the distributor as a solutions provider cements the relationship even more.
Training and Support
Robotic training is fundamental to successful integration. Both distributors and end-users need to commit to training. This is where you rely on your vendor partner.
A solid robotic welding provider will have a proven training program available to you. And it is essential for a successful implementation that the right individuals are running the robot, and that they’re experienced welders who understand the welding process. Robotic arc welding is not rocket science if you are a seasoned welder. Think of it as a big tape recorder in which you store the points into the computer, and then the robot connects the dots. But the operator must first understand how to weld, weld well and take pride in his work.
Support is another crucial element in the equation. When a manufacturer’s line is down, the manufacturer is losing money. The vendor partner and the distributor need to be able to react quickly when the robot goes down. Make sure your partner can answer support calls during the end-user’s business hours.
If this is new for you as a distributor, be honest with your customer and have the attitude that says, “I’m in this with you, and we will learn it together.” This also will reflect the trust you have with your vendor partner and will allow both distributors and customers to establish a relationship with the robotic expert where you can pick up the phone and call him directly. If you have the technical expertise as a distributor, this can differentiate you from your competition.
Automation is not a replacement for the human welder, and it never will be. It is, however, an emerging solution for manufacturing companies to stay competitive. Seeing this on the horizon, it is important for distributors to find a trusted robotic welding provider and work together to bring application-specific solutions. In the end, everyone will have a better, more profitable business.
|Meet the Author
Brian Doyle is welding automation sales manager at Miller Electric Mfg. Co. headquartered in Appleton, WI, and at www.millerwelds.com.