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Welding Robots Alleviate Worker Shortage

Image: Automation World

March 27, 2018      

Driven by increasing industry demand and competitive prices, welding robots have been the subject of a number of much attention recently, as new offerings from leading robot manufacturers are enabling the automation of industrial welding more effectively than ever.

The American Welding Society estimates a welder shortage of 290,000 in the U.S. by 2020. The issue came to light last autumn, after the hurricanes in Houston, Florida, and Puerto Rico left homeowners and infrastructures devastated and in need of extensive rebuilding.

Furthermore, because of the physicality associated with welding, especially over the course of a career, companies are turning to robots to fill the skills gap that comes through workplace injury and employee fatigue.

GE has even turned to its welders to become the programmers of its new welding robots, allowing them to retain their jobs and share their expertise with advanced software controls. In addition, educational institutions are developing programs to teach students welding robot programming and maintenance.

The metal fabrication robot market was predicted to grow at a compound annual growth rate of over 18.5% between 2017 and 2021, primarily driven by increased demand from end users, but also by improved offerings from robot manufacturers themselves.

Robotics firms offering welding robots are attempting to address this shortage in a variety of ways, improving the efficiency of welding operations and streamlining production lines, some of which were demonstrated at the recent Fabtech show in Chicago.

New welding technologies drive Yaskawa offerings

Yaskawa Motoman’s ArcWorld 500 is designed for small-to-medium-sized parts produced at medium to high volumes. As a two-station cell that occupies only a single-station space, it has a small footprint. According to the company, the system works with a MA1440 welding robot with AccuFast II, a laser-based seam finder designed to cut cycle times.

The updated sensor is designed to help performance by providing more reliable and repeatable feedback to the robot controller regarding part positioning. It also provides readings on a variety of materials and at angles of measurement that were not previously possible, said the vendor.

Yaskawa has been developing advanced welding robots

Yaskawa’s AW500 welding workcell (Credit: Yaskawa Motoman)

AccuFast II uses a non-contact, commercial point laser instead of “touch” sensing with the weld wire, to enable the robot to quickly and accurately locate welding seams and reduce cycle times. In addition to removing the need to cut the weld wire, it also provides faster search speeds by eliminating wire deflection.

The AccuFast II laser seam finder is compact mounted inline with the welding torch and is compatible with Yaskawa Motoman’s thru-arm torch-design robots. The sensor uses the same input and output signals as traditional touch sense, allowing it to be retrofitted into existing robot installations.

The ArcWorld 2000 offers users a modular workcell that can be deployed as a single-station or as a two-robot dual station configuration and can handle parts up to 5 meters in width and up to 6,300 kg in weight.

The ArcWorld 2000 can be used for automotive frames, agricultural parts, and construction machinery, said Chris Anderson, an associate chief engineer at Yaskawa.

Yaskawa Motoman’s Spotworld 1200 is a standardized workcell with integrated welding robots, process equipment, and safeguarding. Spotworld 1200features a pair of spot-welding robots with a turntable positioner.

Yaskawa also offers a Robotic Welding System Payback Calculator for companies considering adopting a full robotic welding system. The calculator allows for the calculation of an ROI on a system, so companies can determine the budgetary needs of a full installation and determine how large a system must be to fulfill production requirements.

Other industry leaders remain focused on welding robots

Yaskawa isn’t the only company offering welding robot systems. As demand for automated welding capabilities has grown, so have the number of product offerings available.

The new SnapWeld Collaborative Robot Welding package developed by ARC Specialties Inc. and Universal Robots is a cobot-assisted, interactive welding system designed for existing, manual welding booths, eliminating the need for costly new robotic cells.

“We are getting a lot of requests for integrating Universal Robots in welding booths, so we saw this as a unique opportunity to develop an integrated low-cost system for gas metal arc welding [GMAW] applications that no one else in the market is currently offering,” said John Martin, vice president of ARC Specialties.

Fabtech was the venue for the robot’s first demonstration, in which conference attendees were able to perform stitch welding by “teaching” the robot the start and stop points, as well as the number and length of the stitch weld.

The welding system integrated with the UR robot is comprised of a Profax wire feeder and water-cooled torch enabling welds up to 600 amps, with torch bracket, all cables and hose packages included. The simplified programming is enabled by direct software integration into Universal Robots’ own programming environment through the Universal Robots+ platform that will allow users to program advanced settings directly on the teach pendant that comes with the UR robot.

Settings include features such as wire feed speed and burn back time, gas flow time, and crater fill time with instant feedback on welding volts and amps.

“This UR+ welding package is the perfect solution for low volume/high mix fabrication shops, allowing operators to manage robot programs and welding parameters on the fly,” said Manuel Sordo, Universal Robots area sales manager.

Other vendors at Fabtech with robots for welding applications included FANUC, Güdel, and Novarc. FANUC released a seven-axis robot for spot welding in automotive manufacturing.

Güdel said its ArcTrack is a “preconfigured robot track-motion module for arc-welding applications” that can reduce lead time by 40%. Novarc showed off what it called the “world’s first collaborative welding robot.”