Welding robots are a valuable part of the team for manufacturers
Improved efficiency. Improved safety. Improved quality. That’s the promise offered by robotic welding in the manufacturing industry. From the use of cobots to work in collaboration with humans, to robots that use machine vision to handle tasks themselves, freeing up humans to take on other jobs, robotic welding has evolved to make that promise come true. Australian manufacturers are using it to get a leg up on the competition and stay relevant in the fast-growing Asia Pacific region.
Filling a Need
Welding process controllers such as those produced by Robotic Technologies Systems Australia perform intricate welds using 3D machine vision. Robots measure and inspect the piece they are about to weld, analysing data from the images they capture. These images are compared against preset parameters. The robot welders then are able to perform complex manoeuvres quickly, taking steps to make the piece of equipment in front of them look like the preset parameters tell them it should. Much like a craftsman checking his work, the robots scan the finished item to be sure it matches the prescribed settings before moving on to the next piece. If the comparisons don’t match, the robots can adjust on wire feed speed, weaving, travel speed, and voltage to produce the desired result.
SMENCO’s Fronius welders generate reports on their own performance, making troubleshooting easy and enhancing efficiency. They can perform welds in hard-to-reach places and at difficult angles that might be hazardous for a human welder. Whilst there are many job vacancies in the welding industry, there is a lack of skilled labour to fill them. There are now increased opportunities for engineers and programmers to find work designing robots and systems.
The Australian Industry Group is working on facilitating skills training in the wake of its Workforce Development Needs. “Not only are employers experiencing greater challenges finding the skills they need, but for the first time, shortages were reported for key Industry 4.0 skills of business automation, big data, and artificial intelligence solutions,” Ai Group head Innes Willox told Manufacturing Monthly.
One area where robots particularly excel is metal inert gas (MIG) welding, a form of arc welding in which a consumable wire electrode melts and conjoins pieces of metal. Robots can perform these intricate welds with precision, enabling consistent high-quality finishes that can be replicated. Hand-On Industries engineers plot out their MIG jobs with computer aided design beforehand so that the execution of welds on steel, stainless steel, and aluminium comes with no surprises. Whilst the robots require expert setup, they can be supervised by unskilled labourers without a great degree of extra training.
One of Australia’s robotic welding pioneers, Bossong offers automated MIG and tungsten inert gas (TIG) services. The technology allows for quick completion of jobs containing 50-100 components, and with plasma cutting, the robots can get through metals of various thickness with no problems. Automation Solutions’ Fanuc ARC Mate robots have slim arms let them operate in tight spaces and do high-density installations. Their advanced servo technology reduces cycle times by more than 15 per cent, making them the fastest robots of their kind in the world. A far cry from the caged robots that used to be seen in auto factories, these freewheeling welding robots can be programmed for highly customised work and free up humans to focus on the bigger picture.
“There are tasks that humans do that detract from their productivity and pride in their job,” robotics expert Frank Tobe told CNBC. “Cobots enable human workers to program machines to do the tasks they don’t want to do.”
Opening New Markets
As cobots are becoming more affordable, they are also more productive and more valuable to manufacturers. The average price of a cobot has dropped from nearly $38,000 in 2016 to approximately $28,000 today. Over that same time frame, their global market value has risen from $400 million annually to a projected $2.5 billion this year.
“The new era of welding robotics will be concentrated in both the manufacturing sector and, to an ever-greater extent, jobbing shops that perform metal fabrication,” Peter Kuebler, BOC technical manager, told Australian Welding. With welding robots making for a faster manufacturing cycle in its newly opened specialty gases production facility, BOC was able to open overseas Asia Pacific markets where shipping times previously presented a huge challenge.
“Welding technologies are also offering important opportunities for Australian manufacturers of all sizes to compete globally,” BOC South Pacific head Ashley Mills told Manufacturing Monthly. “Multi-process welding robot solutions are helping reduce welding times by 70 to 90 per cent. While new welding processes, shielding gas mixtures, and digital welding machines are increasing efficiency and safety while giving companies such as ours new engineering and operational challenges to overcome.”
The Australian Trade and Investment Commission (Austrade) has identified the automotive, aviation, defence, and medical technologies fields as areas that are ripe for export opportunities thanks to faster cycle times. Improved efficiency, improved safety, improved quality, more revenue. It’s a winning formula, and one robotic welding is making a reality.