Automating Small Batch Fabrication Welding |

Automating Small Batch Fabrication Welding

When your demand increases but your source of welders is limited how can you keep your business growing? What if you have a multitude of part numbers but minimal quantities of each part that need welding and manual welding is just too slow? The solution is to automate the process however up till now automation technology wasn’t fast enough, flexible enough or economically feasible enough to make this a viable alternative. But no longer, automation now offers manufacturers a solution.

Manufacturers with high mix, low volume parts have welding demands that are not typical and require constant monitoring and control of the welding process. High-mix-low-volume parts are usually not assembled accurately as they are fitted without jigs. One should consider each member in the same batch as one-off production. However, most robot programming techniques available today either on-line programming or off-line programming are not as accurate, flexible or fast enough to make this particular small batch fabrication feasible.

As an example NPK Construction Equipment, Inc. in Ohio is a manufacturer of attachments for heavy machinery equipment used in construction, demolition and mining industry processes. During the past few years, their sales and production have grown exponentially – to the point that their manual welding process was bogging down production. Their staff of master welders simply could not keep up and with fewer expert welders available to hire due to a worldwide shortage of welders NPK had to find another solution. They needed a solution to increase production, improve quality and improve employee working conditions. Since their products range widely in size and shape and their inventory includes multiple part numbers with minimal quantities per part, their small batch production process did not lend itself well to standard robotic welding systems. They needed a solution that would accommodate working with various part sizes and shapes and could flexibly adapt to each part’s welding requirement. They needed the sort of solution that could reliably weld all of their large complex parts quickly and accurately, but one that would require minimal robot programming time.

ACSS a structural steel fabricator in California had a similar dilemma. With the current shortage of expert welders coupled with the spiraling costs associated with finding skilled labor, ACSS felt that automating their manual welding process was the next investment they could make that would give them a real return on investment given the very competitive climate of the structural steel industry. The key however was to find a solution that addressed their high mix, low volume part requirement and the programming challenges associated with this mix. Typically, robot programming for welding is a complex and time consuming undertaking making it uneconomical for small batch production.

Technological breakthroughs are moving automatic welding of small batch production from a virtual model to reality. New technology is now available for intelligent, robotic welding solutions for small batch fabrications. Now available are modular, flexible and automatic off-the-shelf manufacturing solutions that can be implemented in a wide range of manufacturing applications after a short setup. With these new advances an automation system can now be designed specifically for small batch production and it can be extremely accurate, flexible and reliable, welding at a much faster rate. By combining hardware and software in a welding cell manufacturers can automate both the robot programming and the weld production of a company’s parts while realizing between 4 to 8 times savings in labor. Manufacturers replacing their manual welding processes with automation can reduce their welding times by as much as 80%. Additionally, by reducing their manual welding processes they can address the challenges of attracting and maintaining qualified expert welders, a challenge created by the current worldwide welder shortage. Automation can reduce the need for expert welders, improve time to market, and increases production volume and quality.

Both NPK and ACSS have implemented such a solution using a combination of 6 axes articulate robot, three axes gantry units, 2 axes positioners in the first case and head and tail positioners in the second, welding power, controllers and software to provide the multi-dimensional movement required to weld a typical small batch production component accurately, fast and efficient. Automation can now turn welding robots into smart welding solutions that can analyze 3D CAD data and execute the welding process. Systems can now be designed with as many as 16 axes in two or more working zones for efficient continuous welding. This gives manufacturers the flexibility to weld a high variety of parts ranging in size, geometry and welding technologies. Automation has come a long way and manufacturers looking for an easy to use, fast welding process for small batch fabrication now have the technology to automate without sacrificing flexibility.