Is it Time to Automate?

5 Five Factors to Consider

Making the decision to automate your welding process isn’t something to be taken lightly. It requires a careful assessment of your current welding process, a detailed plan to automate and, in most cases, the ability to justify the capital expenditure—tasks that together can take months to complete. Still, automating your welding process can bring many advantages that make the work worthwhile. These include:  increasing productivity, improving weld quality, and lowering material and energy costs, among other benefits. In many cases, you can also obtain a quick return on your investment through such advantages. The key to successful automation is to consider some important factors before purchasing and implementing your robotic welding system.  

Factor #1: Plan Accordingly

Image of a fixed automation MIG gun, welding
Making a careful assessment of the current welding process
and creating a detailed plan is key to gaining the many
advantages of an automated welding system.

Transitioning to an automated welding system can dramatically increase production; however, it should never been done impulsively. It is expensive and does not suit every application or facility. Instead, prior to implementing an automated welding system, work with an integrator or robot OEM to develop a plan that accounts for factors including: the part and volume to be automated, your facility and available personnel for overseeing the system.

Completing an upfront evaluation of your current welding process, as well as the outcome you desire is a good place to start. It will also help you avoid implementing an automated welding system that requires constant supervision. After all, the goal is to have an automated process that requires only nominal supervision, while still improving productivity and weld quality.

A good first step is to consider whether you need a fixed or robotic welding system. Fixed automation is extremely efficient and cost-effective, and works well for welding parts that requires straight or curved welds along a single plane. An example would be a lathe-type application in which a simple part is spun, welded and ejected from the process. Another example would be a straight-line weld, in which the torch advances, makes a six-inch weld and retracts to the neutral position in preparation for the next weld.

Conversely, a robotic welding system features guns mounted on arms with articulated joints that can reach, rotate and pivot to gain access to the part. They can be programmed to complete more intricate welds than a fixed automation system. If you anticipate frequent job changes or need to weld complex parts, this type of automation can offer the flexibility to be re-tasked as needed.

Also, think of your company’s future welding needs when determining which type of automation is best for you.  For example, if you currently weld a part well suited to a fixed automation system, but you aren’t certain you will be welding that part three years from now, consider a robotic welding system. It can be reprogrammed and retooled to accommodate your needs in the future.

Factor #2: Evaluate Your Application

Regardless of the type of automated welding system you choose, these systems are significantly faster than semi-automated welding, provided the process suits the application at hand. Simply put, your application needs to be repeatable. Parts with large gaps, fit-up or access challenges are best left to a welding operator who can weld in obstructed or precarious positions and compensate for such conditions. Similarly, parts that require intricate clamping and tooling to hold them in place will often hinder the productivity benefits of an automated welding system.

Instead, if you are considering an automated welding system, be certain that the parts manufactured upstream are as simple and consistent as possible, and that they allow the robot to execute the weld repeatedly. Working with a robot OEM or integrator is a good way to determine if your parts are well suited to an automated welding system. Provide them with a blueprint or an electronic CAD drawing of the part you wish to weld. Doing so helps improve the quality of the planned weld and determine how the part and its tooling can be fine-tuned to optimize the automated welding process.

Prior to automating, you should also assess the parts flow. For example, if you want to your automated welding system to relieve a bottleneck at the welding cell, then be certain that there are no delays in upstream part fabrication. Similarly, you should ensure that there is no rework required before sending parts to the welding cell or that the employees supplying parts to the robot can match the cycle time of the automated cell. After all, the efficiency of each of these situations directly affects efficiency of the automated welding system—if they are too slow, they can cause significant downtime and negate the speed sought through an automated welding system.

If you cannot guarantee fast upstream workflow, you may want to consider an automation solution for upstream applications. These machines feature sophisticated part recognition systems that can pick up parts, manipulate them to the correct orientation and deliver them to the automated welding cell. These systems add to the expense of automating; however, they may be an option if you are concerned about the consistency and cycle time of your manual upstream processes.

Factor #3: Assess Your Facility

You might consider working with a third-party integrator to help you decide whether your facility suits the installation of an automated welding system. System integrators are knowledgeable about all aspects of facility modifications necessary for automation, including important safety regulations that apply in the fabricator’s region, country or state, in addition to those specified by OSHA and RIA (Robotic Industries Association).

Image of a Matrix drum holding wire
As part of your facility evaluation, consider the
cost of purchasing larger wire packages and the
appropriate storage areas for them.

That said, the first step in assessing your facility is to determine your available space. Remember, the physical footprint necessary for a robotic welding system, as well as the room needed for the flow of raw materials is significantly greater than that of semi-automatic welding processes. By considering your available real estate, you can be certain that you have not only the physical space to accommodate the new system, but you can also avoid having to customize products, such as unicables, peripherals or torches to fit the work envelope. Instead, you can rely on standard products that will work within your allotted area. And, don’t worry if you have a small facility. There are still ways to make automation work. One option is to purchase fewer pieces of automation equipment that are capable of performing multiple tasks.

Regardless of the size of your facility, you should also consider the power sources required to operate an automated welding system—a 480-volt three-phase power source is usually considered optimal. Also consider your gas and wire requirements.  Due to the higher volume of welding possible with an automated welding system, you will need to purchase, store and place larger packages of wire (for example, 600 or 900 lb. drums compared to 40 lb. spools). In terms of gas delivery, limiting robot downtime is the top priority. Investing in bulk delivery of gas and using a manifold system can eliminate the downtime associated with frequent bottle change-outs and is key to adding to the productivity of an automated welding system.

Factor #4: Determine Your Available Personnel and Training

Automated welding systems need human supervision and maintenance. When considering whether to automate your welding system, you should evaluate the skill set of your available welding operators, as well as the resources you have for training them.

The personnel who are most viable for training (and ultimately the oversight of your robotic welding system should you proceed with the purchase) are skilled welding operators or those with previous robotic welding management experience.  These individuals should, after training, have the skills to program the robot and to troubleshoot the automated welding process as needed. They should also be able to perform routine, preventive maintenance on the system, as it can significantly decrease downtime in the long term and increase the life of the system and its components. Consider vetting robot OEMs to determine the availability and costs associated with the training of your personnel. Typically, robotic integrators and OEMs training, which usually lasts one to three weeks depending on the certification level desired. Also, look for robot OEMs or integrators that have resources available after the training has been completed. These resources may include online tutorials or troubleshooting information, additional onsite training and/or service team members you can reach by phone with any questions you and your team may have.

Factor #5: Justify the Expense

Finally, before transitioning to automation, you will need to justify the expense—either to your superiors, or to yourself if you are the decision maker. To do so, first consider whether the volume of parts you need to produce necessitates automation. Remember, the key benefit of an automated welding system is the ability to produce high volumes of quality welds. If you have a smaller facility with lower runs of parts, however, you may still be a good candidate for an automated welding system. With the help of the integrator or robot OEM, you may be able to select two or three smaller volume applications and program a robot to weld those different parts instead.

Calculating payback requires you to assess your current part cycle times and compare them to the potential cycle times of an automated welding system. Determining this volume is a critical factor to estimating your potential return-on-investment, as up to 75 percent of the cost of a semi-automatically welded component is the labor. That said, even if you will produce the same number of parts, you might be able to justify the investment by the amount of labor you can reallocate elsewhere in your operation. Specifically, you can use the skills of your semi-automatic welding operators toward the completion of challenging welds that cannot be completed with an automated welding system—adding further to your overall productivity.

Smaller companies that transition to an automated welding system, or those with frequently changing parts, often seek a shorter payback period (no more than 12-15 months) in order to justify the investment. Conversely, if you know that your production needs will not change for years, you may be able justify a longer payback period.

Final Thoughts

Remember, the key to successful automation is planning. Work with a trusted integrator or robot OEM to assess your current welding process and to determine the best type of automation for your application. Don’t forget to consider your available personnel, options for training and any facility accommodations needed for a new automated welding system. Each of these factors is crucial to realizing the advantages of automation and can help you achieve a faster return on the investment. 

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