December 27, 2013      

Robotics is expanding deeper into welding applications thanks to a combination of expansion of axes, improved sensors, improved power supplies, better reliability and enhanced learning capabilities.

The improvements mean that robotics can be used for welding and fabrication in an expanded number of facilities that previously could use only limited robotic welding or human welding, according to experts who spoke with Robotics Business Review at the recent FABTECH 2013 conference in Chicago.

The improvements will help the global welding robots market to enjoy a 5.73 percent compound annual growth rate from 2012 to 2016, according to a report from analyst firm Research and Markets.

Today?s robots offer more intelligence and more flexibility than the machines of only a few years ago, because they are more practical for high mix, low volume applications, says Christopher Smith, project manager for Wolf Robotics LLC, Fort Collins, Colo. The company produces a variety of modular robotic systems delivered to users ready to weld.

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Readily available robotic software like RobotStudio from ABB Robotics, Auburn Hills, Mich., makes it much simpler and less expensive to reprogram robots for different types of welds.

The robotic software enables non-experts to quickly and easily teach robots how to make welds without the need to learn software programming.

With the advent of simpler programming, the user can quickly set up the robot for the next weld, enabling the robot to be more productive, resulting in a quicker return on investment. Robots are now even practical for job shops and similar uses where there are only a small number of repetitive welds for each job.

In addition to more use in job shops, the improved capabilities of robotic welders are pushing them more into the energy sector ? particularly the assembly of liquid natural gas containers, and in the construction market for use in the assembly of construction equipment like cement mixers, according to Smith.

More Angles

Today?s welding robots also offer expanded capabilities to work at different angles, says Jeff Nash, igm Robotic Systems Inc. general manager. The company offers robots that can work from six to nine different axes, enabling them to perform welds at odd angles that in the past had to be left to human welders. Other companies have also expanded the axes on which their robots can operate.

?We?re consistently pushing the welding envelope,? Nash says, pointing out, in addition to being able to weld at more angles, the newer robots are much faster and have faster communication speeds than their predecessors.

In short, they can do more work in the same amount of time. The company?s welding robots are used in the trucking, heavy construction, agricultural, rail and shipyard industries. With the ability to now weld at an increasing number of angles, the igm robotic welders are no longer limited to welds on the outside of trucks and other equipment for customers like Caterpillar, now they are being used for welds inside the equipment as well.

Regardless of the angle, the welds are now also more precise due to enhanced sensors, laser guidance capability and vision-guided systems that many of the welding robots offer, according to Nash.

Better Power Control

Improved power supplies and power control mean that robots can weld at much higher and lower temperatures than ever before as well as work better with aluminum and mixed metals, according to Terry L. Tupper, senior engineer of the FANUC Robotics Materials Joining Group.

The enhanced ability to work with aluminum and other metals means a wider ability to use the welding robots in manufacturing and other industries where those metals have become or are becoming more commonplace. Better power control and power supplies also provide more consistent welding because there is a steadier stream of power throughout the process.

Beyond being able to control the power better, the newest generation of robotic welders also feature reduced power consumption, which means a lower total cost of ownership for the user, Tupper says. This is another major consideration for both small shops and larger users.

Better Reliability

Today?s welding robots are more reliable, too, says Edwin DiMiLanta, ABB senior manager of welding and cutting. It wasn?t so much the robots themselves that

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failed before, it was ancillary systems such as exterior wiring. So ABB now includes and encloses more of these systems as part of the robot itself, making it more reliable. The more reliable the unit, the better the total cost of ownership for the user.

ABB?s IRB 6700 robot, for example, costs owners one-fifth less than its predecessor, with the minimum time between failures now at 400,000 hours. Service and repair time has dropped 15 percent.

Reducing failures, service and repair time means more uptime and quicker return on investment for the customer, DiMiLanta says.

The robot also has a longer reach (2.6-3.2 meters), enabling it to get to spot welds that its predecessor couldn?t.

More Teachable Robots

Robots today are much more teachable than robots of the past: they can be set up and in use much more quickly, says Chris Anderson, Yaskawa product marketing manager, welding. The company displayed its DX 200 controller and Yaskawa Motoman MA 1440 arc welding robot for the first time at FABTECH.

The controller is easy to use, so no advanced training is necessary. The user can teach it one weld, which it can make multiple times, then quickly teach it to make a new weld.

The ability to adapt quickly from one weld to another makes the machine very flexible in job shops, according to Anderson. Based on full-time use, the robot with the controller costs about $8 an hour to lease, much less than a company would have to pay a human welder ($16.69 to $25.00 p/h U.S.Department of Labor), according to Anderson.

?The biggest change that we are seeing is the cutting of the programming costs [for the welding robots] Anderson says.

Continued expansion

Experts expect the advances in the adaptability , the reliability and the ease of use of welding robots to continue, which will push them deeper into areas like job shops where they are just starting to be used as well as into a wider variety of applications.

See related: Without Robots, Welding Is in Trouble