Welding cells adapting to manufacturing changes

Flexible and modular equipment can maximize equipment's useful life

By John Leisner and Ed Crum, Miller Electric Mfg. Co. September 18, 2014

In today’s changing manufacturing environment, many companies find themselves having to adapt to various jobs, contracts, and competitors. This necessity can stem from a change in the type of product being manufactured, a change in the material being used, or changing rules and regulations regarding employee safety, such as weld fume exposure.

With this frequency in manufacturing changes, taking steps to plan out the features in a weld cell can help companies make the space and equipment much more functional for the job at hand-and for the jobs to come.

Creating an adaptable weld cell goes beyond just improving the physical space, but that is also a very important component. Choosing flexible and modular welding equipment is an important way that manufacturers can maximize the value and useful life of that equipment, even as needs change.

What to consider in the weld cell

The goal of establishing an adaptable weld cell is to make the space usable for any job that comes through the door and to put the company in a position to still gain the best productivity and quality.

The process of making a weld cell adaptable to manufacturing changes includes:

  • Considering the footprint of the weld cell
  • Determining how the equipment is arranged
  • Assessing the modularity and overall capabilities of the equipment.

It should be noted that there are benefits for both automated and semiautomated welding processes when it comes to optimizing the weld cell for change. There are, however, different priorities for the two processes. For example, safety, including weld fume management and ergonomics, may be a bigger priority in semiautomatic welding, whereas maximizing efficiency may be more important in an automated weld cell. Likewise, tracking quality is likely a priority in both welding processes, but in an automated cell, that data may be used to improve throughput. In a semiautomatic cell, the data may be used instead to identify welding operator training opportunities.

Manufacturers also need to consider the entire welding process as it impacts the weld cells. The way parts are loaded into and out of the fixtures, or how easily the needs of the cell can be modified if there is a change in product or material type are both important.

Benefits of creating an adaptable weld cell

Creating a weld cell that can be adapted to manufacturing changes offers numerous benefits for productivity, cost savings, and employee health and safety, among others.

  • Improved productivity and throughput. Streamlining the weld cell supports productivity initiatives and helps create a leaner process as production demands change. A properly organized weld cell can contribute to a smoother workflow, ensuring that parts aren’t touched as frequently and that they move through the weld cell quicker-even if those parts change over time.

Plus, having flexible equipment can improve productivity. Power sources with various process capabilities, such as those with MIG and Pulsed MIG offerings, are a good option. They allow welding operators to simplify the transition between processes as needed for specialty jobs, such as welding thin materials or gap filling for different jobs that go through a weld cell-without incurring excessive downtime.

  • Reduced costs. A weld cell that emphasizes maximum flexibility can save manufacturers money in the long run by reducing the costs to upgrade and replace equipment as the manufacturing environment changes.

For instance, if a new job demands faster cycle times, the ability to modify a welding process to reduce spatter or the time spent on post-weld cleanup is invaluable. Such a benefit can often be realized by purchasing welding equipment that can be updated with new software and is a much less expensive option than purchasing new power sources.

Also, having equipment that is flexible and modular can minimize costs for retooling that space. In automotive manufacturing, for instance, everything is built around platforms. A traditional platform can run for about five years. If, at the end of that platform life, the equipment can be broken down and redeployed on another line within the operation, it can result in cost savings and longer useful lifespan of that equipment.

  • Employee health and safety. Implementing equipment, such as mobile fume extraction systems or fume extraction systems with reusable ductwork and components that can be deployed in various areas, can help companies provide a cleaner and safer environment for employees.

Such systems also can help employers meet increasingly strict rules and regulations regarding weld fume exposure, regardless of the area where they are used and the product they are welding.

Should a company need to reconfigure its weld cell layout for a new job, having portable fume extraction equipment makes the transition simpler.

Other safety benefits associated with proper equipment layout in the weld cell include the reduction in clutter, which helps reduce trip and fall hazards for employees. Ergonomics should also be considered when configuring the weld cell. Design work fixtures at the appropriate work heights, and implement the right welding gun and cable length for the job.

  • The ability to generate continuous improvement. The addition of welding information management systems in the weld cell can provide wide-ranging, real-time data to help companies improve productivity, quality, throughput, efficiency, and welding operator training, even as manufacturing needs change. These systems can often be retrofitted to existing machine fleets (via a 14-pin receptacle), making them a cost-effective addition to gather information on a variety of welding applications.

Using the data generated by this technology can help manufacturers improve the welding process in their entire manufacturing operation, from fabrication to final assembly, by allowing them to gather data that can serve as a baseline for current and future needs. As applications potentially change, the system can help companies assess productivity, quality, and cost factors for new parts. It can also provide knowledge about the welding process that will help management configure their weld cell in the most effective manner.

Practical tips to adapt the cell

Making a weld cell flexible and adaptable for a changing manufacturing environment might seem like an overwhelming process, but there are some practical steps that can help companies position themselves for changes.

  1. Measure the productivity and efficiency of the existing cell to understand where there is room for improvement. Look for areas in the weld cell that can be augmented (e.g., via new workflow, the investment in modular equipment, etc.), as having these factors in place can position the company for future change.
  2. Choose a supplier or product manufacturer that offers good after-sales support and service. As needs change in the weld cell, the supplier can continue to provide expertise and help.
  3. Consider products that are designed to be scalable for future evolving needs. Implementing a basic welding information management system that can be upgraded to more advanced capabilities would be a good option to address manufacturing changes. Also, fume extraction ductwork that can be clamped together and repurposed can save companies money; if there is a need to reconfigure the weld cell, the ductwork can simply be unclamped and reused elsewhere.
  4. Consider purchasing welding equipment that offers flexibility for use with different materials. Companies can benefit from a system that is flexible enough to handle changing material types and strengths, and the varying processes that go with those changes.
  5. Equipment that is movable (e.g., fixtures on wheels) and includes running gear typically offers more flexibility in adjusting to space needs or changes in a weld cell. Implementing booms where applicable also helps maximize reach and overall cell flexibility.
  6. Purchase guns that are customizable for the job, such as those with interchangeable necks, to help improve the adaptability of that equipment.
  7. Train welding operators to understand the importance of weld cell layout and maximizing equipment use, so they understand how it ties into productivity and efficiency efforts.

Competitive adaptability

Some companies make the mistake of buying equipment that’s just sufficient to meet today’s welding needs. In reality, companies should consider products that offer flexibility or at least the capability of doing more when needs change. Choosing a more flexible welding system or fume extraction system, as examples, prepares a manufacturer for greater growth and productivity and allows it to be more competitive in an evolving market.

It should be noted that equipment that offers greater flexibility and modularity may require a larger upfront investment, but it can save money in the long run. Companies that can’t justify the upfront investment should consider a manufacturer that offers accessories that can help accommodate future growth and changing needs. That way, additional capabilities can be added via the accessories without having to invest in a completely new welding system.

Having a weld cell that is adaptable, both in equipment and in layout, can poise a company to address manufacturing changes as they occur, while also saving money in equipment purchases and improving functionality of the space.

John Leisner is senior product manager and Ed Crum is segment market manager for advanced manufacturing for Miller Electric Mfg. Co.