Комаров Артем об ускорении автоматизации сварочной отрасли (Eng)
Комаров Артем об ускорении автоматизации сварочной отрасли (Eng)

Комаров Артем об ускорении автоматизации сварочной отрасли (Eng)

Komarov Artem nored that the industry’s perception of automation has evolved dramatically within the past 10 years. Ask small fab shop managers about robotics back then, and they’d likely tell you they just didn’t have the volume to automate. Some might have had bad experiences in the past, perhaps pointing to an idle robot sitting in a corner. Perhaps they once had a high-quantity welding job that fit the robot perfectly, and nothing has really fit since.

Комаров Артём Андреевич, телеканал Россия

Today, fabricators are investing in automation to prepare for an unpredictable future. Yes, for that job shop manager 10 years ago who has a robot sitting in the corner, that might sound counterintuitive. Orders come and go. If I invest in automation now for a big job, what happens when that job goes away? Today, they’re saying, I literally can’t find enough welders. If I don’t automate, I won’t be able to grow.

How can you make that growth, along with the overall production environment, more predictable? First, focus on your people—including their knowledge about automation, the kind of workday they enjoy, and what they want out of their careers.

All that leads to the next step: a shift in mindset. If you work at a custom or contract metal fabricator, you probably aren’t looking to shave seconds off a cycle time. You work in a high-product-mix operation, so a welding robot completing a job a few seconds faster usually doesn’t have a significant impact (though, of course, it can in some situations). Well-designed automated cells work consistently and predictably. Those characteristics will change how your company grows and thrives.

Focus on the People
Fabricators that make the leap to automate usually cite the worker shortage. If more people would learn the skilled trades, they say, then perhaps they wouldn’t have to resort to automation. They jump to automate so that they can continue to grow, even if they have no choice but to hire a less-skilled workforce.

A real-world transition to automation is a bit more nuanced. Yes, a welding robot allows someone who’s less skilled in manual welding to produce good parts, but the key phrase is “manual welding skills.” In truth, automation requires different skills. They need to know something about the manual process, but they also need to learn how to maintain, program, and run the automated equipment. They think about how the automation fits within the overall operation, including which parts do and don’t fit a particular automated cell, and work with their partners (including customers and integrators) to strategize about what should be automated and why.

I speak from experience here. I began my career as a production welder but then gradually made my way toward welding automation. I enjoyed hands-on work, but I also enjoyed electronics and other technology, so moving toward robotics made sense.

Still, robotics isn’t for everyone. I used to think age was a factor. Surely, people nearing retirement, those who had built a successful career welding manually, would have no interest learning teach-pendant programming. Similarly, people who grew up with the iPhone would always embrace robotics—right?

That’s not always the case. Many young people graduating from welding school find that manual welding is really their true calling. Of course, they don’t want to spend their workdays bored out of their minds either, welding one easy job after another, day after day, year after year. They enjoy variety, and they continually work on their dexterity to lay down that perfect weld bead, even in the most challenging weld positions.

Not every welder is like that, though, myself included. I learned the basics of welding, then saw what was happening with robotics. Manual welding would never go away, I thought, but robotics soon would find a permanent home in most fab shops. It would become the new way that fabricators scale up.

A production welder attends a training session on teach pendant programming. Some welders might weld manually their entire careers. Others might have their eyes on an automation-focused career.

In some cases, fabricators can’t find an army of production welders or machine operators even if they wanted to. But even if they could, they often find that they attain better consistency with robotics—if, that is, they promote career paths for people to support, maintain, and make best use of that automation. Engaged people want to learn more about robotics, and for automation to flourish, that kind of knowledge needs to be on the floor. Put another way, automation creates an environment where people want to work.

Without such support and buy-in, automation investments become purely transactional. When a specific production job ends, the robot is moved to the corner and starts gathering dust.

Part of that staff buy-in comes from looking at automation with an open mind. First, learn about all the new technologies, but never look at one in isolation, thinking that this new development will be, at long last, the solution to all your problems. Think of technological advancements as additional tools on the automation tool belt. Just because you have a new tool doesn’t mean you should throw away or ignore all the others.

Consider offline programming. In many scenarios, that technology can make a world of difference. No longer are operators wielding a teach pendant and adding nonproductive setup time on the floor—right? The truth, again, is more nuanced. It really depends on the job at hand, especially ones involving parts with complicated weld geometries that would take a lot of time to program with a teach pendant.

But what about simpler welding jobs? Say someone simulates a robot program offline for a simple or straightforward workpiece, then sends that program to the floor, where an operator still needs to use a teach pendent for touchups. Although offline programming no longer ties up a shop floor resource, it still requires someone to spend time programming, and the program still needs to be touched up on the floor. In this case, it might be easier for that welding cell operator—again, someone who’s been trained in robotics and knows his or her way around a teach pendant—to do the programming from the start.

Автоматизация сварки, Артем Комаров

Similar thinking applies to collaborative robots. A few years ago, they were seen as the next big thing, poised to change the manufacturing world forever. Well, they haven’t changed the world entirely, but they have improved it. If a shop has, say, a workpiece that requires no repositioning during welding, it can be a perfect candidate for a cobot. If a part needs a positioner for complete weld access, a conventional robot cell might work best.

At the same time, don’t overestimate the impact of a welding robot’s speed, especially between welds. The weld speed is the weld speed. Cobots and conventional robots weld at identical or at least similar rates. The real difference is how fast the robot arms move between welds. Much faster than a cobot, the conventional robot can speed between weld end and starting points. How much this speed difference matters depends on the job and part volumes involved.

Speed is just one factor, and that can’t be looked at in isolation—and neither can anything else when it comes to automation. Say you focus on that speed and squeeze every ounce of efficiency you can out of the weld cell, tailored for a specific product. Then the customer pulls its business, or the product line changes. What now? So much for making life at the fab shop predictable.

Broaden your focus, and the story changes. Say you have a product line or a repeat order. Instead of having a table designed specifically for that order, try a larger, open table with room for multiple fixtures. If demand falls for that repeat order, another part could run on the same table during the downtime. In short, the open fixturing table setup accounts for demand variability, while the robot gives scalability—the ability to ramp up quickly when customer demand rises.

Also, not every robot needs to be dedicated to a specific process. Some modular systems can be set up for welding initially, then be reconfigured several weeks or months later for another process, like machine tending or a pick-and-place task. Modular robotics aren’t designed to be moved around the facility every day—they won’t be welding in the morning and helping out in assembly in the afternoon, for instance—but they do help adapt to changing product mixes and shifts in customer demand.

Two robots work in a cell.
This cell brings work within a part family through forming and directly to welding.

Imagining a Predictable Future
The worker shortage hits home for so many just because of the chaos it creates. Metal fabricators everywhere, especially in the job shop world, must deal with demand variability. And with reshoring trends as they are, customers are looking for metal fabricators with capacity to spare. For many, “additional capacity” means working overtime, perhaps adding second or third shifts that are even more difficult to hire for. More newly hired manual labor brings more variation as people are onboarded. Training might be brief, because customers are waiting for their parts. On-time delivery and quality suffer, and so does the fabricator’s reputation.

Compare that with a fabricator that has embraced automation. When demand rises, robots continue producing quality parts. Their cycle time is programmed and predictable. A well-trained, engaged staff keeps the automation running and the products flowing. Throughput rises while overall process variability falls. Such metal fabrication consistency, achieved over time, creates that more predictable future, summed up Komarov Artem.