Making sense of third-party maintenance for your automatic welding system

Working with third-party PM providers allows more focus on core competencies.

By Bob Steinke and Bob Rickel, The Lincoln Electric Company September 22, 2011

Nothing throws off a manufacturing schedule as quickly or drastically as downtime from an unscheduled equipment failure. That’s why diligent, regular preventive maintenance is crucial to the success and efficiency of any manufacturing operation.

As any plant manager knows, a good preventive maintenance program anticipates and prevents equipment failures. Such PM activities, including periodic inspections, parts replacement, and equipment cleaning, are more than something that is “nice to do” or accomplished “when there’s time.” The fate and success of a plant’s operations can hinge on PM, or the lack thereof.

Sensitive automated equipment, such as a robotic welding cell, for example, requires a targeted, routine PM program to ensure proper operation and provide maximum in-service lifespan. An effective program involves a routine, systematic inspection, adjustment, lubrication, and replacement of components, as well as software upgrades and performance testing and analysis.

Most plant engineers and managers already know this. The dilemma is: What plant truly has the in-house resources and manpower to first develop a targeted program for automated equipment maintenance and then follow through with it on dedicated, regular basis? And, without these resources, how do you get started with a program, let alone achieve success?

Benefits of outsourcing

That’s where outsourcing comes in. Working with third-party PM providers who service your equipment will allow your in-house maintenance staff to focus on their core competencies and leave the inspections, cleaning, and maintenance to seasoned PM experts who are well versed in automated welding equipment.

Think about regular automotive maintenance. While there are some people who enjoy changing oil and doing regular maintenance on their vehicles, most people would rather have their car serviced by professionals who have specialized equipment that allows them to complete the job quickly and correctly. Shouldn’t you do the same for your robotic welding equipment?

The frequency and scope of any PM plan for automated components is dependent on the nature of the manufacturing operation and the plant environment. No two programs are the same. While equipment providers do offer suggested PM guidance in their service manuals, these guides provide only an initial template for program development and execution and leave some guesswork if you’re not experienced with the nuances of the maintenance required.

When you engage outside PM services, these experts will examine your operations and equipment, assess your manufacturing environment, and help you determine the right course of action for your facility and your automated equipment.

Developing the best routine PM program for automated welding systems depends on choosing a provider whose experience and process best suits your needs. Once the plan is in place, choosing the proper partner will help you keep your plant operational and also maximize its efficiency. There are several key points to consider when choosing the right provider for your needs.

Knowledge and experience

Essential in this evaluation is knowing what the service provider offers and what kind of experience the technicians have with automated welding equipment. Are they generalists or do they have specialized experience in your piece of equipment?

Simply put, there’s more to maintaining an automated welding power source than blowing the dirt out of it. For example, some methods of cleaning and degreasing are more effective for one application than for others. Special processes are required to fully clean and degrease a power source exposed to months or years of shop environmental contaminants.

As such, many general service centers, as reliable and high-quality as their work might be, don’t always understand how this type of equipment functions or how it needs to be inspected, cleaned, and serviced. It’s always best to work with experts who focus strictly on these machines rather than a company that services many kinds of equipment. PM specialists that focus on automated welding equipment know exactly how to care for such specialized equipment.

Also bear in mind that many equipment manufacturers can help recommend maintenance providers, and some even offer this service themselves, helping you to create and execute your PM plan. And, if you think about it, who better to do this than the company that designed and manufactured the equipment? Often, the employees at these centers have worked on the production line, designing and building the very machines they now service.

Maintenance techniques

Another question to ask is whether or not the service provider offers all of the services you need. Is it able to not only inspect and clean your equipment but also offer parts and repairs, computer diagnostics, service upgrades, and weld testing on automatic equipment? Centers that strictly focus on automated welding system maintenance and repairs typically offer a turnkey approach to PM, providing a full range of necessary services.

One of the first things to ask a vendor is if the shop has proper testing, diagnostic and calibration equipment. Do they test the machines upon arrival to see what errors might have occurred during operation? A good PM provider will troubleshoot both welding robots and wire feeders using computer diagnostics and simulation of the robotic operations to identify potential areas of failure before they happen.

Next, investigate what processes the provider uses to perform maintenance, cleaning, and repair. A good shop won’t service a dirty machine; instead, it will disassemble and clean it first, using a proven washing and drying process.

Environment-friendly degreasing is another must in this era of environmental regulations. Not all shops offer this benefit, so be sure to ask your prospective providers if the process they use is environmentally safe.

After-service testing

Perhaps one of the most important parts of any PM program is the testing performed after cleaning. At many service centers, technicians simply power up the machine after maintenance to ensure it works. That’s as far as testing goes.

But, there is more to robotic welder maintenance than simply powering up a clean machine. The best providers will perform thorough testing on all robotic components to ensure the units are ready to go back on the line and do the job they are meant to do.

Also ask if the provider is able to update the equipment’s software to the latest version as part of its PM activities. The most up-to-date software keeps your production line running efficiently and smoothly and gives you access to the latest capabilities of the system. Potential upgrades might involve updated communication protocols for use with other plant equipment, faster communication between the welding system components, or updates to the welding waveforms for specific applications. If you’re servicing the machine’s mechanical and automation components, you might as well also request a software upgrade for potential gains in productivity or operational efficiency.

Accounting for downtime

Another important question to ask providers is what they can do to help you avoid downtime while a machine is offline for PM. Do they offer rental services to ensure that you can remain operational even when you send your equipment in for servicing?

Rental programs allow manufacturers to stay online while a machine goes to a provider for routine service. Some PM providers will provide free rent for the time the customer’s machine is in their shop, billing only for the time when the machine is in transit to and from the service center. Such an arrangement means you might pay rent only for a few days even if your robotic welder is in the shop for a month.

Making the call

While in-house maintenance might seem to be more efficient, for welding equipment in particular, it simply won’t yield the results necessary for optimal operation of these sensitive machines.

Your maintenance dollars will be better spent when you work with a provider who specifically focuses on welding automation maintenance and reconditioning, leaving your team to focus on what it does best—manufacturing. Additionally, when you outsource your PM needs, you can be assured that your equipment is in the hands of experienced professionals who understand how it works and how it needs to be serviced.

A good provider will take charge of your PM program and make sure you take all the necessary steps in implementing it throughout your plant. So, identify your provider, make the call, and start following an effective, lasting PM program before equipment failure happens.

Steinke is manager of Lincoln Electric’s Regional Automation Service Center (RASC) in Nashville, Tenn. Rickel is a service technologist at the RASC.