- By Bill Lydon
- April 26, 2021
Collaborative robots are being used to address the shortage of welders, which, according to the American Welding Society, will reach a deficit of 400,000 workers by 2024.
Collaborative robots are being used to address the shortage of welders, which, according to the American Welding Society, will reach a deficit of 400,000 workers by 2024. Older welders are reaching retirement age, and younger welders aren’t replacing them fast enough since it is not particularly an attractive job. In fact, the average age of a welder is 55, and fewer than 20 percent are under the age of 35. Collaborative robots are not only used to do welding but also used for other functions in organizations that don’t have a continuous flow of the same work. We can see this deployed with the Hirebotics welding collaborative robot solution a Fabtech 2019.
Wisconsin-based Processed Metal Innovators (PMI) facing a tight labor market with few available certified welders is effectively using the newly released Universal Robots cobot-powered BotX Welder to dramatically increase productivity and profitability. Wisconsin-based Processed Metal Innovators (PMI), Bloomer Wisconsin is a metal fabricator that produces hundreds of different stamped and welded metal parts for heavy equipment, automobiles, appliances, and more. Part sizes range from a few inches to 10 feet, and from thin-gauge material to three-quarter-inches and heavier. The Wisconsin-based Processed Metal Innovators value proposition is providing customers the highest efficiency and least amount of lead time and waste delivering the lowest-cost metal solution, including metal stamping, coil processing, laser cutting, and metal fabrication of the highest quality since the early 1990s.
Erik Larson, VP of operations at PMI, was tired of turning business away due to labor shortages. “So we’re not replacing anybody in our company with robots; we’re just moving people around to where they add most value. There’s been a lot of business that’s come knocking on our door,” he explained, “and a lot of it in the past we’ve had to no-bid because it requires welding. We only have about seven welders and for some of these jobs we needed nine or ten welders. Right now, we have enough quotes out there that we would have to have hired 30 more welders.” With the labor shortage in Wisconsin making it tough to hire certified welders and with traditional robotic welders not feasible for high mix/low volume production collaborative robots welding opened new opportunities.
The company already deploys collaborative robots from Universal Robots (UR) to tend two mechanical presses. The cobots pick parts from a conveyor, place them in presses for stamping, and remove the parts to another conveyor. The safety features of collaborative robots on the presses automatically pause when someone enters the work cell allowing workers to collaborate and perform higher-value operations.
Welding as a service
The cobots were implemented by Hirebotics, a UR Certified Systems Integrator that provides cloud-connected robots that are billed hourly for the time they work, eliminating capital outlays and simplifying applications. That success led PMI to look for other automation applications to grow the company. Rob Goldiez, co-founder and CEO of Hirebotics, said, “Universal Robots is a great choice for this platform to be built around for several reasons: one is that it’s an extremely open platform. It allows us to control how that robot performs from the cloud, and the new e-Series has unique capabilities in its built-in force torque sensor, which we heavily take advantage of to provide a better user experience for the end customer.”
“We selected the BotX robots due to the fact that they are collaborative robots and you don’t need a large guarding system around them. They’re very small, easy to use, very easy to program. It’s a win-win package—it’s the future for doing small welds,” said Larson.
“The Hirebotics team came in, they unloaded the BotX off of their rental truck, and within two hours they had it set up. Within half an hour, I was running it and programming it and doing it all by myself,” said Shaun Bruce, PMI’s robotics and automation area lead, emphasizing the ‘awesome Hirebotics app.’ “I’m not a certified welder, but I’m able to easily just load a program, and I’ve got my tables mapped out in pictures, so I know where to put my tooling and my jig system, and I’m able to swap between parts within a matter of fifteen minutes,” he says.Larson says, “With the new BotX system we can bring in one robot and run it for three shifts and not have to hire three welders, so if we needed 30 welders, we could have ten robots running. We do have to hire employees to run the robots, but now they don’t have to be skilled welders. It really frees up a lot of resources for us.”
Embedded welding expertise
The BotX welder is designed for easy implementation and programming, and combines extensive welding expertise and two years of development collaboration with Red-D-Arc Weldrentals an Airgas company, and Air Liquide.
“The teams at Air Liquide, Airgas, and Red-D-Arc had deep, deep welding expertise that’s being used to build a welding library delivered through the cloud to the robots,” said Goldiez. “These are welding libraries that are developed in an R&D center that Air Liquide has with internationally renowned welding experts.” Hirebotics is also able to rapidly incorporate customer feedback. While early versions provided basic welds such as straight lines, stitch welds, and tack welds, user feedback from early customers such as PMI prompted Hirebotics to rapidly develop more sophisticated processes, including multi-segment and radial welds.
That expertise now yields concrete results, including consistency that even manual welders can’t meet. PMI’s Larson says, “With the BotX robot system, the quality of the welds is great because you program a weld to be in that specific spot, the weld’s going to be in that specific spot. If you program it to be two inches on that seam, no matter who runs that program or who sets the part up, it’s going to be every two inches on that seam.” That’s not necessarily the case with human welders, added Larson. “You go back to the traditional hand welder, well, they’re not sure how much two inches is—it might be an inch and a quarter, it might be an inch and a half, it might be a two-inch gap, or a two-and-a-half-inch gap. So it really takes the guesswork out of making sure you lay the weld down in the right spot.”
BotX is typically half the cost of manual welding
A key concept of the HireBotics BotX robot system is that there’s no capital investment up front. Hirebotics delivers and sets up the system and all the customer has to supply is gas and standard power. After a risk assessment, no special guarding is required, and the company pays an hourly rate just for the time the robot is actually welding. “Compared to what an employee would get for their hourly wage, plus all their overhead costs, you’re probably saving half of what you would pay a normal welder,” Larson estimated.
The new welding robot system has already had an impact on the company’s ability to take on new jobs, despite the acute shortage of welders, Larson explained. “With the new BotX system, we can go out there and quote work we haven’t been able to quote before, because we know by the time we accept the PO, we can get a robot in here and ready to weld the parts before we even get the first order in the door.”
Certified robot welds
Another significant benefit was PMI’s ability to get the BotX welds certified for customers who require this. “This now means we do not need to use certified welders to oversee the operation. As long as the cobot welder’s program is certified, any operator can tend the cobot welder. This really unlocks a lot of resources for us,” said PMI’s operations manager. That’s possible because the robot and programmer are certified by welding inspectors, applying the same testing a human welder goes through for certification, using weld samples and destructive tests to certify the weld.
Small run advantage
PMI also has traditional welding robots in house, but they require tooling fixtures that can take up to 16 weeks to be built. Especially for small-run parts, PMI found that the fixtures weren’t cost-effective. PMI’s Larson explained the difference with the collaborative BotX system. “The tables that the BotX robot comes with include clamping systems and everything you need to be able to just clamp your part on the table and shoot some pictures of it. You have a little diagram of it and every time you go to put that program back in, you can set your part up the same as you did before, so it doesn’t take a large fixture or an expensive fixture to do it. There’s no capital investment in it, and it’s just plug-and-play.”
In addition, any downtime on traditional robots could take up to two weeks to get a service tech to address. In comparison, the HireBotics BotX system includes 24-hour service that responds with the touch of a button in the Hirebotics app. Larson said, “You go on your phone, you click the app, and they will reply.” His colleague Bruce adds, “If I have any kinds of issues, I can message Hirebotics on this app and instantly get a reply back. It’s not hours of waiting, days of waiting; it’s seconds sometimes and for troubleshooting real-time, the problem is resolved within minutes.”
Focus skilled welders on higher profit work
As in any weld shop, profit margin on the larger weldments is significantly bigger than on small welds. “We can now reallocate our existing manual welders to handle the larger parts, while we’re still able to get the little parts done, said Larson.
Larson has also found that the robots appeal to younger workers, who are often hard to hire and retain in manufacturing jobs. He says, “We found out when we put these robots in and we were looking for a position to be the robotic and technology lead person that we had a lot of younger employees all interested in applying for that position because they like their phones and they like computers. It’s a big hit for the younger generation who wants to be into tech to be able to work and program robots.”
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