Robotics 101

Automated welding robotSmaller job shops and fabricators are now using or considering robotic welding. Technological advances have made it easier to program robots to weld small volumes of diverse parts, costs have come down, the work is more efficient, and there aren’t a lot of two-legged welders beating down the doors looking for work. The move to automation was cited in Welding & Gases Today’s 2012 Business Forecast as this year’s burgeoning sales market as well as one of its challenges.  Editor Carole Jesiolowski spoke with Michael Sharpe, staff engineer in the materials joining group at Fanuc Robotics, to provide some insight into this market.

WGT:  How long has “automation” been part of the welding process?
Michael Sharpe:
The first practical industrial robot was invented in 1954. Called the “Unimate” it was installed at General Motors in 1961 to do spot welding. Early applications were for jobs that were very difficult to do, labor intensive and dangerous.  Remember, back then they didn’t have light weight  transformer guns or anything to make their processes smaller and compact. This stuff was huge; it was air over hydraulic and dangerous to use.  The operator was right there guiding the weld tips, moving the gun around with a cable balancer, and there were high electrical currents and potential shock hazards.

WGT: Sounds like the perfect application for a robot.
It was, but not only from the standpoint of safety. Consistent quality was also a driver. The move to robots also came from the desire to automate a repetitive welding process. It worked because spot welding by nature is a single point process. Arc welding is continuous, and that took a little more computing power and specialized algorithms for things like weaving, introduced in the mid to late 1970s.  By 1980, all the major manufacturers had an arc welding robot that could move down a continuous path. That really is when robotic arc welding took off. Before then, it was difficult to coordinate the torch to get along the desired work angles and travel angles.  We’ve come a long way since.

WGT: The early use of robots was for tasks considered difficult, labor intensive, dangerous, requiring high quality…aren’t those the same reasons to use robots today?
Yes, but it’s compounded. There are many things that foster the need to automate, but I think that the lack of skills in our workforce is the strongest reason right now.  Manufacturing is coming back to the United States, for a variety of reasons.  I’ve talked to many suppliers who comment that production in China has not saved them any money because of high shipping costs, scrap rates and others. While we can bring manufacturing back and the associated technology back, the skilled labor shortage is still here. We can handle that shortage by putting the intelligence within the robot. This augments the capabilities of a person who has the practical skills so they can handle more robots. The need is there, and sales are strong because of it.

WGT: How much has demand increased?
The interesting thing is that the economic downturn provided an uptick, kind of a leap pad, in robotic arc welding. Arc had very good sales in the last two years and continues to climb. Statistics from the International Federation of Robotics show that almost 170,000 industrial robots were sold in 2011, the most successful year ever. Sales in the United States were up 53 percent.

WGT: What’s the potential for a distributor who wants to introduce automation to his or her customers?
The industry has plenty of integrators, but those that differentiate themselves in the face of product commoditization are helping their customers apply the benefits of automation.  End-users appreciate the value of what they get for a $5,000 piece of weld equipment. The technology is staggering compared to what it was even a few years ago: processing power, wave form capability, data collection. The same thing with robotics. In order to differentiate themselves, distributors should understand and promote that technology and what it can do for their customers. Otherwise, you’re all selling apples.

welding robotsWGT: And that does not cut it anymore.
We have some integrators who look at vision applications as a way to differentiate themselves, and not just for the traditional view—look at a part, take the offset of the part and apply it to the robot’s path. There are more things you can do.  After it’s welded, vision can look to see if there’s a weld there; that’s error proofing. Before it’s welded, vision could look at the location of the tooling or clamping. Is it in the right position? Is this the right family of part that you’re supposed to be welding? Use the wide variety of tools that are available to provide unique technology-based solutions that enhance core competencies.

WGT: How small do you go down with applications?
We go down to the ma and pa shop with one robot. There is a new class of robot for applications that are straightforward and may not require the latest in hollow wrist technology or the highest processing power, such as in multi-robot control. Some people just want to strike an arc, it’s that simple.

WGT: What do you see as the biggest market areas for robotic welding right now?
The environment seems to be changing.  There’s a strong push from automotive just because of the resurgence of the North American market, and many suppliers to that industry are thriving. The growth rate is encouraging for automating the suppliers of off- highway and heavy vehicle manufacturers. Companies like this understand that if they have a better tool, they will make a better part, and they will improve productivity.

WGT: Give an example of a market that a distributor can look at and say, “This is really ripe for automation. I need to get in there.”
Just like automotive where there are tier suppliers, the same way in heavy industry. Many suppliers to this industry started out doing fab work. They get some raw material, put it on the laser cutting machine, or flame cut it, bevel it, punch some holes, maybe drill and tap, add a bracket and a weld. Through the lifecycle of their companies, they are forced to provide value-add to the product. In other words, if they produce a stamp component, and they are only a stamper, they’re always battling competitive production rates, quality, lower bid price, shorter delivery times. So to up the value of their product, they add processes and one of the logical ones after you form or bend or cut is to weld.  Again, automating the process can help provide a better tool to make a better part to improve productivity while adding value to the parts produced.

WGT: What do you say to the argument that robots will put people out of work?
We’ve been using tools for millennia. It’s part of our human nature to utilize tools to improve productivity and quality. Give a carpenter a rock and a bag of nails, he can build a house and probably will smash his hands in the process. Give him a hammer and he will produce a quality home; it’s just a better tool.

Think back to the discussion on near-shoring and the return of manufacturing. Because there are fewer welding engineers, fewer people who understand the process, we are required to build that expertise into a robot. With some basic knowledge and the right skill set, one individual can handle multiple robots or cells more effectively.  Typical operators are rewarded with a more satisfying work environment in operating and programming robots and keep their jobs as the result of these high tech, intelligent tools. So do robots take jobs? No. Do they change or enhance the work structure? Definitely.

Welding robotsWGT: What’s on the horizon? As the need and desire for automation increases, what new things will we see?
We’ll continue to improve sensing technology and autonomy. In other words, provide that skilled welder’s intelligence in the robot through active guidance. We are working on allowing the welder to step out of his comfort zone. He may know a bit about welding, not much about robotics, but he will be able to drive and teach the robot producing good quality welds. We’re integrating a lot of that tech in weld procedure data within the robot. So weld work procedures provide a method of standardization ensuring the weld process is the same regardless of manual or robotic welding. Also, sensing technology has become more automatic as far as teaching, integrating more offline services on the teach pendant. This provides the means to apply robotic welding at a reduced cost for tooling, and opens the door for software (vision) based tooling datums.

WGT: So the human will end up teaching the robot?
Somebody has to at least guide it; but rather than have to guide it and understand the welding process and all the nuances of the robot, we’re building those things so the robot is more clairvoyant.  I don’t want to say autonomous yet, but it does have the smarts to get the process done.

WGT: What else is on the horizon that you can talk about?
We are working on a new teach pendant design with a 3D processor that guides the operator and allows for viewing various weld data in this environment. That’s the fourth dimension. It makes things that are invisible, like robot frames and complex math data that are hard to understand, visible. The point in space, which can’t be seen after the robot moves away, will be there in a graphical environment.

WGT: What kind of things should a distributor be asking a customer who currently is not automated but wants to be or should be?
It comes down to those things we talked about earlier: job difficulty, higher quality, increased productivity.  We all have a relationship with products that are manufactured with metal and thus require welding. Do they want to improve productivity? If so, automation can do it for them, regardless of length of run, size of the company, or even size of the distributor selling the robot. It is time for intelligent welding, and the future is now.

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