FABTECH attendees watch a BotX demonstration at the Hirebotics booth. Image: Rob Goldiez, Hirebotics, via LinkedIn

November 14, 2019      

CHICAGO – With a labor shortage of skilled workers in the welding field expected to continue, many attendees at this week’s FABTECH show were looking at robotic solutions, particularly collaborative robots, to help address the shortage. Several companies showed off new approaches to robotic welding, aiming their offerings to smaller manufacturing companies that might not have the space for a typical welding robot workcell that requires safeguarding.

According to the American Welding Society, the worker shortage will reach a deficit of 400,000 workers by 2024. As older welders are reaching retirement age, younger welders are nonot replacing them fast enough. The average age of a welder is 55, and fewer than 20% are under 35 years old.

Skilled welders are in demand, due to an aging infrastructure as well as the continuing need to fabricate a variety of items in the factory. While robotic welders have long been an answer to save on labor costs in automotive and other large factories, the welding labor shortage is hitting smaller manufacturing operations as well.

Aiming at mom and pop

Cobots don’t have the additional costs, nor do they need the additional room for guarding needed with a traditional welding robots, making them ideal for “mom-and-pop” manufacturing facilities that need additional welding capacity, as well as for plants of major companies that have yet to add automation to their smaller plants, said Jason Munson, a FANUC welding engineer.

Todd Miller, a representative at Cedar Falls, Iowa-based aggregate firm JW Bell, said the cobot possibilities peaked his firm’s interest primarily because of the automation capabilities without the extra costs of installing more traditional robots. He was looking at the cobot display at the Universal Robots / Airgas / Hirebotics booth.

Hirebotics BotX Universal Robots

A welder works with the BotX Welder application from Hirebotics and Universal Robots.

Universal’s new BotX Welder, developed by Hirebotics, Red-D-Arc and Airgas, uses a UR10e cobot to address two major hurdles of robotic arc welding: ease of programming and the ease in which a customer can obtain the system without assuming the cost of ownership. There are no installation costs with BotX, and with cloud monitoring, manufacturers pay only for the hours the system actually welds, thereby enabling the manufacturer to hire and fire BotX as business needs dictate.

“We chose Universal Robots to power BotX for several reasons,” said Rob Goldiez, co-founder and CEO of Hirebotics. “With Universal Robots’ open architecture, we were able to control, not only wire feed speed and voltage, but torch angle as well, which ensures a quality weld every time.”

Goldiez added that there are a number of smaller manufacturers who don’t have the space to use the larger, more traditional welding robots. Users can learn the basics of operating the welding cobots in as little as 30 minutes, with online courses for more in-depth training. Goldiez said Hirebotics adds its own level of safety parameters with sensors and other safeguards on top of the base-level safety provided by Universal.

In addition to the facilities that have yet to add welding automation, the welding cobots are popular in the trade education market, according to Munson and Goldiez.

Customers can teach BotX the required welds via an intuitive app on any smartphone or tablet utilizing a library of welding recipes contained in the BotX software designed to work with Airgas’ ARCAL shielding gas. The complete BotX product offering includes the UR10e cobot arm, cloud connector, welder, wire feeder, MIG welding gun, weld table, and configurable user-input touch buttons.

ARC Mate cobots

At the FANUC booth, the company was displaying its ARC Mate robots. A built-in sensor enables the welding cobot to work safely alongside people without the need for expensive guarding, according to Munson.

The new cobot systems are equipped with FANUC’s ArcTool application software, which includes an easy-to-use programming interface that supports simple and complex applications, including FANUC’s advanced features such as Weaving, iRVision, Seam Tracking, Thru-Arm Tracking (TAST) and Multi-pass.

FANUC welding cobot arc welding

FANUC’s new ARC Mate cobots include arc welding capabilities. Image: FANUC America

Both of the welding cobots provide six axes of motion for maximum flexibility, the company said. The CR-15iA for ARC offers a 15 kg payload and a reach of 1,441 mm. The CR-7iA/L for ARC has a 7 kg payload, and a reach of 911 mm. The company said high payload capabilities combined with the large motion range will increase system flexibility to process a broad range of parts.

In addition to the Universal/AirGas/Hirebotics cobot display, other Universal cobot welding displays included:

  • Vectis Automation’s new Cobot Welding Tool, a portable, safe, versatile solution available for purchase or a rent-to-own option. Vectis’ Let’s Weld Together intuitive programming interface is accessible directly through the UR cobot’s own teach pendant. Programs can be created, saved, and later recalled in order to handle the numerous part numbers typical for high-mix/low volume shops.
  • SnapCut – a cobot cutting through steel, which debuted at last year’s FABTECH conference. Launched by ARC Specialties, SnapCut enables traditional metal fabricators to cut shapes in three-dimensional steel components with no prior robotic or computer programming knowledge. At FABTECH, SnapCut was utilizing a UR10e cobot to manipulate a Hypertherm cutting torch to desired positions around the cutting path.

Both Munson and Goldiez said the cobots aren’t ideal for every application. They naturally run at slower speeds than more traditional, larger, guarded welding robots that aren’t designed to operate in a collaborative environment. Those robots run at much higher speeds, so they can perform very repetitive tasks much more quickly.

In addition, while safeguards aren’t needed with cobots, it doesn’t mean they will work with every instance, Munson said. Before installing cobots anywhere, a risk assessment in accordance with ANSI/RIA R15.06-2012 is needed to ensure a safe working environment.