Removing guesswork from the welding process with robotic automation
October 2011- From labor difficulties to global competition, many factors are helping spread automation in U.S. manufacturing. When a process can be automated, a company can save both time and money, and it can help businesses remove potential bottlenecks and streamline production.
“We were trying to strengthen operations,” says John Susong, president of East End Welding, Brimfield, Ohio. East End Welding began troubleshooting inefficiencies in 2009 and researching ways to resolve a bottleneck problem.
Susong sought to improve operational efficiency as well as weld quality. During a tour of Lincoln Electric’s automation division in Cleveland, he viewed Lincoln’s submerged arc welding robotic system, which offered the benefits of a submerged arc process.
“The part of the operation that needed the automation was the bottleneck. But now, the welding that the robot does has become the most-efficient part of the operation,” says Susong.
Previously, the company used the SMAW system, which took more time. Each end cap required a complete-penetration, multiple-pass weld and had pre-heat and interpass temperature requirements, according to Jeff Nadzam, technical sales representative at Lincoln. The pieces’ overall length resulted in awkward over-handling. Switching to robotic submerged arc welding allowed welders to rotate the torch head instead of rolling the headers during fabrication.
In late 2009, East End Welding installed the SAW robotic system with a Fanuc M-710 robot arm and control integrated with Lincoln’s inverter-based Power Wave AC/DC 1000 SD welding power source, Nadzam stated in a press release. The modified SAW welding head delivers a SAW single wire from a bulk package or coil of Lincolnweld LA-90, LA-92 or LA-93 3⁄32-in. diameter, solid-wire, submerged arc electrode, which usually is outfitted with Lincolnweld 960 flux. The machine is equipped with Lincoln’s patented air pressure delivery system.
The once-weakest segment of the operation became the busiest and most-proficient step. “Most of these parts go to the power-generation industry. We were somewhat new to this process, and for us to be proficient in producing these parts, we needed something innovative,” Susong says. “It works so well for us that we have a hard time keeping this part of the operation busy. We have to wait for the rest of the operations because those steps are lagging behind now.”
From a management standpoint, it pays to know exactly how much work is being accomplished in any given amount of time. For the last five years, Morbark Inc., Winn, Mich., has worked with Lincoln welding programs for the company’s tree care product needs. “We have a computerized system, Production Monitoring Program 2.1,” says Phillip Fockler, welding engineer specialist and training center director at Morbark. “I can sit in my office and watch the welder as he works. I can make sure all the procedures are set up properly. Traditionally, you had to go down in the plant and watch welders weld,” Fockler says.
According to Fockler, the computerized process is much more efficient. “We can keep track of arc time and know exactly how many minutes a man is welding a day,” Fockler says. “We have to keep track of the cost factor for each machine.”
Engineers are capable of knowing how many pounds of wire are being used per day, hour and shift. “There are a lot of features with this computerized system,” Fockler says. “We have around 50 to 60 now. Right now, I have 10 online that I can monitor every day by watching on the computer. We have 282 welding machines in our plant. It’s changing quite a bit. I test the wires and types of applications.
“The way companies are approaching welding is changing,” he says. Fockler works at Morbark’s training center facility where he trains workers to “meet the needs of the industry and increase production,” he says.
“I also have a Lincoln representative on my weld team,” Fockler continues. “With six to 10 people from our main plant, we work on problems and increase production.” The Lincoln representative proposes possible solutions to efficiency problems Morbark is facing and finds out if Lincoln has new technology coming out to meet those needs.
Morbark sells machines worldwide and has been in business for more than 53 years. “We’re planning on taking another line and changing it for the Five S project we’re working on,” Fockler says, adding the company plans to upgrade equipment because it’s saving the company “a lot of money,” he says.
The company plans to add Power Wave Pulse Welders, replacing the DC400 and 600 amp machines in the future. “These welders are a lot more flexible. I can weld all kinds of materials. Before I could only weld one or two types of materials, such as gauge and plate material. Now we can weld gauge, plate, stainless steel, Haynes, [and] low alloy using the quick-change drive rolls and the six-mode memory panel,” Fockler says.
Using pulse wave welders, Morbark can weld parts more quickly. “We have less warranty problems,” Fockler says. “To increase cycle time, I can decrease the modes and welds so it’s a more controlled welding process. With this change, our product is more efficient and produces more consistent welds.”
Trends transcend borders
Automation is spreading throughout the United States because of a number of factors, according to Geoff Lipnevicius, operations manager, Lincoln Electric. “There is a critical shortage of skilled labor in our country. Secondly, challenges facing North American manufacturers have escalated as the manufacturing industry struggles to stay competitive in a global marketplace. Labor costs, tax rates, health care costs, retirement costs, tort costs and pollution abatement costs are just some of the problems,” Lipnevicius says.
“All markets and geographic [locations] are candidates for robotic automation,” he says, including those involved in power generation; piping; offshore; heavy industry including agriculture, construction, earth moving equipment and mining; automotive and structural.
“It is encouraging that significant volume continues to be from the categories of first-time users or small job shops that have a high-mix, low-volume load and who want guidance on which applications are most suitable to automate,” Lipnevicius says, adding these shops “most often desire to secure a payback of two years or less.”
Robotic automation continues to spread throughout the United States. “There are instances where a foreign company that has already embraced robotic automation in their home country looks to transplant to the U.S.,” Lipnevicius says. “We’re poised to help either scenario—it’s good for business and it’s good for our domestic workforce. It is competition that promotes progress, and the workforce of our country can compete with any country in the world if it continues to embrace technologies, such as robotic automation, that help to spur those efficiency gains and progress,” he says.
The United States falls short when compared to other countries in robot density, Lipnevicius notes. “The U.S. is behind Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Finland and Belgium in robot density (industrial robots per 10,000 manufacturing workers). So you can conclude that the U.S. has a lot of untapped opportunities to grow in the application of robotic automation.” FFJ