Automated welding taking on added importance

Robotic systems can address efficiency needs, worker shortages

By Justin Percio, The Lincoln Electric Company July 23, 2013

The shortage of skilled workers is no surprise to anyone in the manufacturing sector. You may be just reading about in the headlines or see discussions about it on the nightly news, but we live it.

Statistics from the Manufacturing Institute state nearly 600,000 manufacturing jobs are going unfilled in the United States simply because employers are unable to find candidates with the right skill sets for the open positions. The association also reveals that 75% of manufacturers attribute this skills gap as hampering business expansion efforts. Two of the biggest areas with jobs going unfilled are machining and welding.

At Lincoln Electric’s Automation Division, we meet with manufacturers daily. They come to our facility to see what automated welding is all about. In 2012 alone, we had several thousand visitors from over 500 companies touring the facility. They visited to assess whether or not automation could solve not only their production and throughput issues but also their hiring challenges.

In many cases, these individuals walk away with a game plan to improve their productivity and quality, and fill empty positions. And, automated welding is at the heart of that plan. 

Automating for productivity

One of the traditional drivers behind the desire to automate is that of increased capacity. If you’re making 100 parts per hour and need to produce 200 per hour, you either need to add people to the line or you need to automate. In the case where you can’t find qualified welders, robots make sense.

The argument for bringing automated welding onto a production or manufacturing line to increase productivity and throughput is a compelling one. Speed can be increased five- to six-fold by automating some of the welding processes. A typical example is a current project we are working on where a gas tank can be welded by hand in 45 minutes; with a welding robot, it can be done in less than 8 minutes.

At Joy Mining Machinery in Franklin, Pa., a 90-year-old manufacturer and distributor of underground mining machinery, management sought to further improve its already cost-efficient, reliable, and productive fabrication line for longwall and continuous miner systems used for the underground extraction of coal and other bedded materials, such as salt, potash, gypsum, and oil shale.

Welding plays a major role in this production, and in 2011, it became a major focus in the company’s drive for increased capacity. That year, the company ultimately moved a portion of its semi-automatic welding systems to automated GMAW (MIG) welding for the bit block and pedestal assemblies produced at the Franklin plant for these mining systems. These assemblies hold the massive, custom bits that drill into the rock surfaces in underground mines.

At this station, workers attach bit blocks made from treated, air-hardenable steel to a carbon-steel pedestal via semi-automatic MIG welding. One welder can fabricate between 8 and 10 bit blocks in an 8-hour shift. Each of the plant’s three shifts have six to eight welders at the bit block station, welding the assemblies and adjusting the angle radius of the block, depending on the customer’s specifications.

According to Craig Cerminara, A & R welding engineer at Joy Franklin, the company sought to move 98% of the bit block-to-pedestal welding activities to an automated system from semi-automatic MIG welding. Cerminara and his team decided to replace nine semi-automatic stations used for bit block-to-pedestal assemblies and install two automated welding stations in their place.

Once the automation system started making production welds, Cerminara and his team were able to track notable changes in productivity. After only a few months, the conversion to automated welding resulted in an 8% increase in bit block-to-pedestal assembly productivity. Additionally, it has saved more than 12,000 hours of work annually.

Since then, Joy Mining’s Franklin operation has added three robotic work centers to the bit block and pedestal assembly operations.

Improving quality through automation

Quality also is a determining factor in the decision to automate the welding process. We have been working with a manufacturer that has welded the same part for 20 years. The company has been spending close to $1 million a month for four people’s salaries to grind spatter off the part and change out filters in a paint system.

We provided a robotic welding system to the company in February as a demonstration, showcasing our Rapid X technology to provide stable, reduced-heat, short-arc pulse. Within hours of getting the parts into the robotic cell, the company was welding parts with zero spatter. Companies don’t usually talk about scrap and quality issues freely, but they are real.

In manual welding, if you run into an issue and can’t solve it, you have to shut down the entire process and do touch-up. And for the manufacturers who don’t accept touch-up on parts, if a problem is detected halfway through production, those parts will become costly scrap.

With robotic welding, there is a much simpler solution in a program known as production monitoring. For example, Lincoln Electric’s Checkpoint program is a cloud-based solution that delivers real-time welding system monitoring.

Beyond production monitoring capabilities and crucial alerts, robotic welders also have another benefit when it comes to quality– easy access to all angles of a semi-complex or complex part. Because the part can be rotated, the operator can program the robot to access sections of it that can’t be reached manually without stopping to reposition it. This 360-degree view and access facilitates quality welds and increased production. 

Automation helps fill the skills gap

As the economy changes and the workforce changes, the primary reason why people automate also changes. In today’s environment, manufacturers are turning to automation on the production floor to fill jobs and provide the productivity and quality required to keep North America competitive.

Last year, when manufacturers were enjoying increased sales, they turned to automation to get more product made. Today, they are doing it because they are having trouble manufacturing parts, period. Why? Because they just can’t find trained welders. When you can’t find qualified welders, robots make sense. You can make different parts without needing to find people simply by changing out cell components.

The United States still faces a challenge. According to a 2011 study completed by the International Federation of Robotics, “Positive Impact of Industrial Robots on Employment,” the country has lagged behind in robots per capita, trailing Germany, Japan, and Korea by a wide margin, while Brazil and China are closing the gap. In part, this is because U.S. employees are concerned about losing their jobs, particularly in today’s slowly recovering economy. That concern is unnecessary.

Consider this: When you automate a bottleneck, you improve your throughput. You make more parts, and generally speaking, you don’t lose a person in the operation. Because you become more efficient, you can move those people up to the next operation, which will likely become the next bottleneck in six months.

It’s cyclical. Once you have improved the entire throughput, it becomes a “Field of Dreams” scenario. If you grow the capacity of an entire plant, you drive sales. The initial bottleneck starts with that first work cell, moves through the plant and, eventually, circles back to that very first work cell. You need to have people along the way to keep work flowing.

Additionally, when you automate, the person who oversaw the welding in that cell remains there and works closely with the technologist or engineer who oversees the programming and work environment of that robot. You do bring in people, but you train them to a higher skill level. Many traditional welders are more than capable to be trained as technologists or even as engineers. In some ways, automation gives manufacturers a new way to invest in people. In a typical five-year cycle, you incrementally boost production and move people up in the organization, while improving sales.

Consider this real-life scenario: A manual welder at Lincoln Electric was tapped to oversee the first robot brought in to improve throughput on our engine welding production line. He worked closely with engineers and ultimately was promoted to an applications job. Eight years later, he serves as the group leader for applications in our Automated Welding Group and coordinates the activities of eight other employees. And, his original production line is manufacturing twice as many engine welders as it did eight years ago. 

Not “if,” but “when”

For manufacturers who have not yet incorporated robotic welding cells into their production line, the question truly isn’t if they should pursue automation, but when.

Automation of any sort provides the competitive advantage North America needs to remain relevant in the manufacturing segment. Manufacturing is the engine that will spur economic growth, automation is a key cog in manufacturing, and welding remains a critical cost driver to support manufacturing.

Robotic welding is a critical component to improving productivity, efficiency, cost, and quality. Investing in our workforce through education, training, and automation will help maintain the dominant position the United States has held for the last century. 

Justin Percio is Business Manager for Welding Automation Systems with The Lincoln Electric Company.