Taking a closer look at welding robotics and automation

Welding automation is gaining momentum

Practical Welding Today January/February 2001
February 28, 2002
By: Stephanie Vaughan

Robotics and automation are on the rise in welding, especially as the need for welders remains. This article discusses the future of robotics and automation in welding: improvements expected to be necessary, e-commerce concerns, and higher customer demands.

Internet usage, equipment improvements, stricter customer demands, and a shortage of skilled welders have caused robotic weldingequipment manufacturers to take a second look at how they do business. In 2001, robotics industries should continue to experience growth as they try to grapple with the double-edged sword of eroding skill levels in welding and a demanded increase in quality of robotic devices from end users.

Robotics on the Rise

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, robotic arc welding was a novelty many thought would change the world rapidly. As a result, many robotic systems buyers experienced failures because of their unrealistic expectations of what robots could do. This led to a backlash in the middle to late 1980s, when spending on robotic arc welding began to decrease.

Robotics manufacturers now are experiencing strong growth. Robots are considered elements of the manufacturing chain of processes instead of a replacement for an operator, and some manufacturers even assume that virtually all production welding will be performed with a robot, with manual welding the exception rather than the rule.

Fanuc Robotics Materials Joining Group General Manager David Manning believes that by offering a more technological image of welding, more people will want to be welders. Because young people today are part of the first generation to grow up with computers, he believes robotics has the computer-related edge that can bring young people into the welding industry.

"When you say 'welding,' most people think of someone crawling under a pipe in a dirty environment breathing the welding fumes," Manning said. "Welding itself takes a lot of operator skill to make a good weld, and one thing about robotic welding is that it introduces the aspect of quality. With the use of robotics, now you have this aspect of a little higher technical image and skill sets that will attract more people to the industry."

However, hyping the computer side of welding automation and robotics is not a quick fix for dealing with a welder shortage, according to Dale Stolzer, manager of customer service and standard product sales at Pandjiris.

With regard to welding automation— of which robotics is a form—he sees an increase in usage as he watches companies deal with the personnel shortage. However, more computer-related training in the engineering curriculum is necessary to get welders into the industry with the skills they need.

"Industrywide, there's no shortage of people who have the skills in the computer end of it, but I think you're seeing people who don't have the engineering basis upon which to put those computer skills," Stolzer said. "I think that's where we tend to see the shortage of that expertise."

Improvements in the Future

While making robots easier to use and simpler to program are necessary, manufacturers are partnering more with customers to demonstrate how robotic workcells affect quality and productivity.

In the short-term future, manufacturers will establish Web sites to help customers get answers to questions, and companies will establish a variety of Internet communication mechanisms through which users can gather, analyze, and use information.

In addition, Rich Litt, president of Genesis Systems Group, said use of human machine interface (HMI) in software is another growing trend in robotics, allowing operator ease of use.

Because robots have matured to the point where they can achieve repeatability, consistent joint location, and touch-sensing, operators have more time to spend on weldment design and dimensional data, fixture tooling, and gauging.

Saving time and training welders to use higher technology can aid the growth of robotics, according to Dean Elkins, vice president of sales at Motoman.

"If we can take those same few welders and teach them to employ our technology that allows them to go faster, that's certainly going to increase the return on investment for the company for which they work," Elkins said.

Contrasting Concerns Over E-commerce

Not all improvements necessary in welding automation and robotics are technology-based, however. For welding automation companies like Pandjiris, for example, communication and cooperation from vendors are big concerns.

In addition, while robotics welding manufacturers are enjoying the growth stimulated in part by e-commerce, the general welding automation industry is just starting to use the Internet to promote their business.

"We certainly have a Web site, but from what I've seen, the activity from it hasn't been significant. It certainly hasn't revolutionized the way we do business yet, but I foresee it happening," Stolzer said.

"I just think that people in the industries in which we are involved lag behind some of the more high-tech industries. A lot of the industries we're in are old industries, such as petrochemical and piping. A lot of the industries we serve seem to be slow to embrace some of the new technologies, especially e-commerce," Stolzer added.

Robotic welding equipment manufacturers are using the Internet to solve problems (instead of using trial-and-error techniques). In addition, they use the Internet to work with distributor networks, get spare parts, and register customers for training. In the future, some manufacturers plan to extend their customer base by using the Internet.

No matter what changes take place, it is clear to some robotic welding equipment manufacturers that extending technology to make operations more convenient is a logical progression. Technology, however, will not change everything.

"In custom systems where there is a lot of high-invention content, robotic simulation software and communication via the Internet will prove to be valuable tools to augment—rather than replace—traditional sit-down and video conferences," Elkins said.

"In fact, as pressure on costs and price increases, visualization and simulation tools are becoming essential because the customer and the integrator can see the system upfront—with all of the components required to achieve the customer's process goals—before it is built, particularly at the time quotations are developed," Elkins added.

Customer Demands

Companies that are in both welding automation and robotics are experiencing steady growth. Although the move toward automation from novelty to necessity is causing this, interaction with customers also plays a large role in the increase of equipment orders.

Welding companies are responding to customers who demand stricter expectations and more partnering.

"Years ago, the automation business might have been driven by price or by relationships. Today, a lot of it is driven by delivery schedules or by the ability to serve the customer, to provide intangibles—not just providing steel, reducers, motors, and electrical systems, but providing an entire package, total product management," Stolzer said.

"I think partnering with the customer is what is driving business today. Obviously, price is always going to be a factor, but there are intangibles that companies have to use to distinguish themselves today that really weren't necessary in years past."

From welding robotics providers, customers are looking for strong customer service, internationally based support, strong spare parts inventories, faster deliveries, further development of productivity enhancement tools, and design and manufacturing process-related information.

With their needs becoming less equipment-related, customers also want assistance in material flow to and from robotic workcells and design reviews of simple parts and tooling to make up for a shortage of skilled labor.

Companies also are striving to produce flexible equipment, according to Litt.

"There is a real shift from proprietary hardware and software toward personal computer architecture and languages that everyone can understand, leading to costs being driven down.

"Once you start moving to personal computer platforms, if you want more memory, you go to Best Buy and you spend $20 and you buy more memory. You don't go to the robot manufacturer and spend $10,000," Litt said.

Through the equipment evolution, however, Manning has seen families of products developed that are similar in functionality. Integrating products tightly within a system, product, or type eliminates a third party through which end users can get their products.

"There will always be a drive for some users to be able to go out to the shop next door and get what they need," Manning said. "Our challenge will be to make sure that as we design, we do have reliable components and items that are designed to try to make it as open as possible, yet maintain that quality level."

Robotics Is More Than a Fad

Despite the challenges of a welder shortage, robotics and welding automation industries are moving ahead with more convenient technology. By partnering with end users, equipment manufacturers are assisting in enhancing the flexibility of automated systems used in a variety of markets.

"I see a continual effort to use robotics and technology," Manning said. "There were some people who said this was just kind of a blip on the screen—we would saturate the market very quickly and then there would be very little growth. But what we're seeing really is a continual, steady growth and actually an increase in some areas as we find more and more good applications for robotics.

"People now are understanding robotics to the point where they are actually using them and trying to have a system in which they say, 'We need to improve, we need to make better-quality products.'"

Practical Welding Today acknowledges the following sources used in preparing this article: FANUC Robotics North America, Inc., 3900 Hamlin Road, Rochester Hills, Michigan 48309, phone 248-377-7000, fax 248-276-4133, Web site www.fanucrobotics.com; Genesis Systems Group, 8900 Harrison Street, Davenport, Iowa 52806, phone 319-445-5600, fax 319-445-5699, Web site www.genesis-systems.com; Motoman, Inc., 805 Liberty Lane, West Carrollton, Ohio 45449, phone 937-847-6200, fax 937-847-6277, Web site www.motoman.com; and Pandjiris® Inc., 5151 Northrup Avenue, St. Louis, Missouri 63110, phone 314-776-6893, fax 314-776-8763, Web site www.pandjiris.com.

Stephanie Vaughan

Contributing Writer

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