Should you automate your welding operation?

Considerations for making the decision

July 11, 2011
By: Robert Ryan, P. Eng., MBA

If conditions are right, automating your welding operation can improve quality and productivity. Careful consideration of various factors can help you determine if automation is appropriate for your application.

Welding gun

As the economy continues to show signs of improvement and manufacturers face greater demands for production, competition likely will increase across the marketplace. In addition to implementing lean practices, which many manufacturers find can greatly improve productivity and quality, some also may choose to automate their welding operations as a means to gain a competitive edge or improve profitability. This decision, however, is not one to be taken lightly.

While there are many advantages to automating your welding operation, implementing a new automated welding system first requires a careful assessment of the facility, the parts to be welded, and your available labor. If you are wondering whether automating is right for you, consider some of the benefits of doing so, along with the many details that you should assess before proceeding.

When implemented properly, and for the right application, an automated welding system may result in marked improvements in productivity and provide the throughput of several manual welding stations. That does not mean that skilled welders are not required in an automated welding operation; on the contrary, they are a vital part of it.

Other results of automated welding systems might include lower labor costs, as well as reliability and consistency in welding performance. In many cases, an automated welding system can provide companies with an attractive return on investment (ROI) and the opportunity to lower operational costs as well.  

Best Applications for Automated Welding

Automated welding systems rely on accuracy and repeatability to provide the quality and productivity improvements for which they have been designed. To achieve these results, the parts you are welding also need to be consistent and repeatable. Gaps, poor fit-up, or poor joint access can easily prevent an automated welding system from doing its job correctly.

Simple part designs are particularly good candidates for an automated welding system, because they allow the robot to execute the same weld repeatedly.

If you are considering an automated welding system, you also should be certain that the part does not require intricate clamping or tooling to hold it in place. It is a good idea to have a robotic integrator or welding solutions provider assess your operation and the weldments (or parts) before implementing an automated welding system.

Generally, automated welding systems are best for high-volume, low-variety applications; however, smaller facilities can still be good candidates for automation. Often the low-volume, high-variety applications require flexible tooling and more programming to manage several products. The additional complexity can increase the initial investment, but the efficiency and productivity improvements gained may still provide a solid return on the initial investment.

Process Flow Is Important

It is important to assess your current operation for process flow (or workflow) to determine whether investing in an automated welding system is the right choice.  In some cases, your existing operation may have to be reconfigured in advance of automation to prevent bottlenecks that could slow down the movement of parts into the automated welding cell. Several options are available, including the technique of using U-shaped cells for dedicated products, or setting up a flexible cell that can manage quick tool and fixture changes. These are particularly helpful if your welding requirements change on a daily (or hourly) basis.

Quality Matters

Automated welding systems can significantly reduce the occurrences of weld defects. In many cases, they also can improve weld cosmetics and minimize or eliminate spatter. That being said, you should have a dependable supply of quality components that enter the automated system. Quite simply, if poor-quality parts go into the cell, then poor-quality parts will come out of the weld cell. Further, a consistent and reliable supply of components is required to maintain a reasonable level of overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) – an important metric that evaluates the effectiveness of the manufacturing operation.

Shift in Skill Set

Having adequate labor to supply the automated welding system with parts is also imperative. Every moment that a robot sits idle waiting for a part to weld ultimately adds up to lost productivity and increased costs.

Automated welding systems require supervision and maintenance. As part of the process of determining whether this conversion is right for you, you should assess your available resources and their skill sets. Skilled welding operators and employees with prior robotic welding experience are the best candidates to supervise the weld cell. If you do not have personnel with those skill sets, be certain that you evaluate the time and fiscal resources you have for training. In many cases, robotic integrators and OEMs offer training that can help provide the necessary troubleshooting and operating skills to manage an automated welding system properly.  

The Next Step

Once you assess your operation and determine that an automated welding system is a good fit, the next step is to find an appropriate robotic integrator or distributor to make your vision become a reality. In addition to confirming that your parts are suitable and identifying potential bottlenecks, these individuals can assess your facility to make sure that you have the space and services to support an automated welding system. They also can advise you on updates or tooling changes that need to be done before implementation.

Likewise, a robotic integrator can help you select the right power source, robot (the manipulator), robotic controller, and other key equipment.  For example, the ideal power source will be one that helps maximize travel speeds, provides good arc characteristics, and minimizes spatter. Additionally, a robotic integrator can discuss the benefits of adding robotic peripherals, such as nozzle-cleaning stations, wire cutters, and antispatter sprayers, that focus on extending the life of your welding gun and consumables.

Ultimately, the goal when deciding whether to automate your welding operation is to have a thoroughly defined plan before you start. By carefully assessing each aspect of your current welding operation and working with a trusted partner, you should be able to garner all the information you need to make an informed decision and achieve your vision for a more efficient and profitable operation.

Robert Ryan, P. Eng., MBA

Product Manager, Automation Group
2570 N. Talbot Road
Windsor, ON N0R 1L0
Phone: 877-737-3111

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