April 03, 2015      

New technologies are enabling major advancements in robotic welding, according to presenters who discussed some of these developments at Automate 2015 in Chicago last week.

Welding and other robotic applications need to evolve to meet the expectations of the incoming workforce, said Mark Oxlade, market development manager for welding and cutting at ABB Inc.’s robotics division.

iPhones advance welding

“Today, a new generation is entering the industrial workforce,” he said. “They are the first generation that grew up with iPhones and iPads. When they look at the teach pendants that are in use today, many of which are still stuck in the turn-of-the-century key access, they wonder how these beasts escaped from the technical museum. They have high expectations on the user experience, and we had better measure up to them.”

The evolving teach pendant

From teach pendant to smartphone

So rather than older robotics control and monitoring devices, Oxlade recommended that companies upgrade to iPhones and associated apps, which can enable a person to control a number of robots at different locations rather than be anchored to a controlling device at a single site.

In the future, the tablets that are popular for robotics control in many companies today will be replaced by the next generation of teach pendants, he predicted. This will enable the user to operate existing tablet apps through simple hand motions. The next-generation pendant Oxlade displayed looked similar to virtual reality goggles that some PC gamers use today.

With that type of teach pendant, the user could use a hand motion demonstrating a weld, and it would be enough to program the robotic welder to perform the task, Oxlade said.

The next-generation teach pendant will also enhance safety because robots could be programmed using virtual reality simulations for environments unsafe for humans, he predicted.

Oxlade said he foresees user interfaces evolving from being on standalone devices to being on the robots themselves for quicker deployment and operation of applications. Teaching tools and the user interface, combined with an embedded analyzer, could enable companies to optimize robotic-enabled processes such as safely monitoring and controlling laser equipment.

Among other products, ABB demonstrated on the show floor its IRB 6700 Robot with Scanner Laser Welding System featuring welding-on-the-fly coordination of head mirrors and robot motion without the use of a PC. The dedicated user-interface screens on the robot feature a FlexPendant for quick startup and program geometry offsets for monitoring and control of the laser system.

Welding on the fly involves the coordination of head mirrors and robot motion so the user doesn’t need a master PC, Oxlade said. “Though the efficiency improvement looks small, it can make a big difference by the end of the year,” he added.

For example, six welds with stops would take 9.3 seconds, with the same welds made on the fly take only 6.3 seconds. Even a three-second improvement would lead to an increase in annual output from 150,000 welds to 200,000 welds — a significant improvement, Oxlade said.

Vision enhances welding output

Machine vision systems are becoming more important for welding and other robotic applications, said Doug Houston, project manager at Genesis Systems Group LLC, but he added that companies need to carefully determine the type of vision system and ancillary elements to achieve the best results.

The 3-D systems are more expensive than the 2-D systems, but the extra expense is worth the investment in some situations, according to Houston.

The 2-D systems often just do not provide the necessary visual feedback, so 3-D vision systems are preferred when the operation depends on 3-D profiling, part location, pattern matching, or 3-D measurements, he said. Similarly, companies need to choose the pixel definition that works best for their environments. Some machine vision systems offer only a low level of pixels, which may not provide the definition needed for some applications.

Another consideration when integrating machine vision with robotics is the lighting, Houston advised. So he recommended that companies carefully examine the available lighting, the need for filters (to block sunlight), and other lighting accessories when considering robotic vision equipment.