In an article that recently appeared in THE WELDER magazine, American Welding Society Executive Director and CEO Gary Konarska II wrote about a panel discussion hosted at FABTECH 2022, Atlanta.
The topic was "How to Add Automation to Your Business.” There have been some interesting takeaways for automation in welding that Gary Konarska reported from the conversation:
ROBOTS CREATE JOBS
The overwhelming consensus was that automation creates career opportunities. "Robots are critical to the success of any manufacturing facility in the United States. With automation to boost productivity, you can take advantage of more opportunities, and that creates more jobs," Finazzo said. "When I visit customers, I always ask them two things: ‘What keeps you up at night’ and ‘what’s your automation-forward plan?’ There’s no longer a discussion of whether or not companies can continue to do things manually. When that happens, they tend to shrink really quickly. The question is how quickly do you want to adopt automation and what’s your plan?" "All the skills that our great welders have are transferable to automated welding. They’re just going to be used in a different way," added Gilgenbach.
START WITH A QUICK WIN
Komljenovic noted that there’s a general trend regarding automation, where companies want to take their most complex problem and automate it because they have a hard time with people delivering the required quality. "Please do not use your most complex part to start your automating journey," he said. "The right approach is to get a quick win, then make sure you have an automation champion that moves that win forward. That way you’ll create a trust in automation." "Look for parts that are repeatable, where you either have a good process or you’re confident you can develop a process," Gilgenbach added. "Then robots can help you improve productivity." Rhoda, who has been working with robots since the 1980s, agreed. "The right place to start is with those simple, mundane subassemblies that are also the most boring for the operator. Shift those tasks to welding automation."
FIND AN AUTOMATION CHAMPION
"I want to reinforce the point about having an automation champion," said Gilgenbach. "Part of our job as automation providers is to help prepare organizations for their new robotic teammate. For a successful implementation, we have to identify a point person that is going to own programming, operation, maintenance, troubleshooting, and teaching others." The key ingredient for a champion is desire," Rhoda said.
RETHINK ROI METRICS
Everyone reports to someone, so being cost conscious and justifying a capital expense is important, but the ROI mindset has changed. "Quality of the product you’re producing is now more important," Finazzo said. As a result of the skilled labor shortage, companies don’t have the extra capacity to account for scrap. With the skyrocketing costs of materials, scrap hurts even more. "If you’re an automotive supplier, you must have 100% quality," he continued. "Companies need to assign a value to quality. There’s also a value for lost opportunity." Gilgenbach stressed calculating the cost of lost opportunity. "Previously, payback might have been based on the hourly wage or burden rate. Now it’s the jobs that you’re not going to get because you didn’t have the capacity, or your lead time was too long. I think that’s a key change in the way that people are looking at payback for automation." "There’s usually a 3-to-1 saving ratio with automatic versus semiautomatic welding, but there’s often the quality savings that are more difficult to recognize," said Rhoda. "There’s huge savings possible with automation, not only in the material and labor but with eliminating distortion and extra postprocess work."
DON’T SKIMP ON TOOLING
"The cost of tooling is usually the highest barrier to a customer being able to move forward with automation," said Finazzo. "Tooling is always more expensive than anyone wants it to be. That’s just the nature of the beast," added Komljenovic. Consider tooling and your other needs when you evaluate an automation partner, advised Gilgenbach. "Are you going to buy a cell from one partner and then buy custom tooling somewhere else? Do you already have modular tooling at your shop and you just need the robotic cell? Are you going to want a partner that designs the tooling with you, installs everything, does the programming and the first runoff? I think understanding the level of support that you’re going to need is important." Rhoda added that part of the appeal of a cobot and outfitted pre-engineered cells with turntables and modular fixturing is they remove a lot of the extra cost and engineering time that was a barrier to automation.
AUTOMATION EXPOSES DEFICIENCIES AND BOTTLENECKS
Automation forces improvements in upstream processes. "CNC-controlled plasma cutting, laser cutting, and press brakes enable automation because they present the robot with consistent parts," Rhoda said. "Before automating, ask yourself if you have good upstream processes. If not, focus on those first." "You can’t spend enough money on upstream processes," added Finazzo. "Don’t try to bypass those improvements and make up their shortcomings with automation. Look for an automation partner that can help you control tolerances of the parts coming into the cell and you’ll be much more successful." Once a company introduces automation, its high precision and repeatability will immediately reveal productivity bottlenecks upstream and downstream of the automated cell. "One of my favorite books is called ‘The Goal,’" said Rhoda. "It’s now a classic book that’s about the theory of constraints and setting the pace for your factory based on knowing where the bottlenecks are and addressing them."
VISION SYSTEMS AND SENSING HAVE ADVANCED
"Vision and other sensing systems, combined with better decision-making algorithms and machine learning, enable us to deploy robots faster and more intelligently," Komljenovic said. "Picking applications that were tricky a few years ago are a piece of cake today." "2D and 3D vision technology are very easy to adopt now," added Finazzo. "Because they cost less and are easy to set up, now you can afford to explore and say, ‘I solved this problem and I’m able to reduce cost here, so I can spend more over there.’"
COBOTS ARE SAFE
AWS and the Association for Advancing Automation (A3) both have standards for robot and cobot safety. "To accelerate adoption, you have to ensure that it’s going to be done safely," said Finazzo. "Even though a cobot has power- and force-limiting measures, there is a thorough risk assessment process. Training is also part of the mitigation tactics." "Because there is no fence or light barrier, people wonder if cobots are safe. The answer is yes," said Komljenovic. "However, you still have a torch at the end of the cobot arm. How safe is a hot torch? Well, it’s about as safe as when you’re welding by hand. That’s why you need to pick an automation partner that helps you understand how to assess risk."
INVEST IN EDUCATION
The experts’ companies invest in programs that reach educational institutions, create mentoring programs, and offer educational opportunities to grow automation skills. "When you think of return on investment of a corporation, that’s really the return of investment of a country—to give back and be competitive in manufacturing," Komljenovic said. "We have a long way to go, but we’re on a good trajectory."