Special Report: Automation

Fabrication shops must consider investing in technology

By Gretchen Salois

Above: Cobots like Rethink Robotics’ "Sawyer," are safely guarded in such a way that they can work alongside workers.

Combating talent pool drain, fabrication shops of all sizes must consider investing in technology to alleviate pain points on the shop floor

October 2018 - Pockets of lost productivity are hiding behind the bustle of the fab shop floor, slowly eating away at profits and productivity. As manpower recedes, fab shops can automate repeatable or dangerous tasks to better allocate skilled hands and minds elsewhere along the production line. Talent is a valuable commodity and whether you’re a one-person operation or employ hundreds, well-thought-out automation solutions can resolve problems and deliver opportunities.

“Our customers aren’t just choosing talent from a shallow pool. In many areas it’s like it has been totally drained,” says Acieta Segment Manager of Fabrication Chris Poole. “Hiring is a full time job. Automating is ideal for dangerous, repetitive or mind-numbing, simple jobs.”

But a quick fix isn’t the answer when considering a shift to robotics. The trick to automating any size shop isn’t always about installing a robot, says Dan Allford, president at Arc Specialties, which builds machines that automate metal fab shops. “Smaller shops aren’t going to have a robotics expert on staff,” he says. “So the part of their production they hate is the part they think they need to automate—that’s not always the case.”

FFJ 1018 automation image1

At Tube Supply in Houston, “Rosie,” named after the robot maid in the cartoon, The Jetsons, frees up workers to take on more complicated tasks.

Recently, Allford worked with a company south of Houston that fabricates metal pipe supports. The company wanted him on site to consult about their desire for a robotic welding cell. “As I walked through the shop, I noticed the way they were cutting I-beams was antiquated, using an old magnetic cutting torch. I figured out what they really needed was a robotic plasma-cutting station. The plan resolved their problems and they have yet to install a welding machine,” he says. “Sometimes the solution you think your shop needs isn’t always the case after further inspection.”

The smallest shop Allford worked with consisted of one man fabricating valves. “We went in and designed a machine to automate the process. Soon he purchased seven more machines and ended up selling his company for more than the cost of the machines he bought from me—by a long shot. He’s retired now, raising exotic animals,” Allford says.

Robots are increasingly easier to use and adapting their functions to smaller shops is growing. According to Gudrun Litzenberger, general secretary of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), “Not every industry has a vast resource of expert production engineers on board, the automotive industry being an exception. Robots that are uncomplicated to use are therefore essential for industries other than automotive, to be able to sustain efficient and flexible manufacturing.”

Next-gen engagement

Advanced technology isn’t meant to simply replace people. “A combination of tech and talent still matters,” Acieta’s Poole says. “In order for companies to attract the best talent from this younger workforce, they need to show that their operation is looking to the future and investing in technology that will keep workers interested and engaged with the work they do.”arc 10 3918

Fabricators compete for the same dwindling talent pool. Investing in new technologies is an important part of attracting new talent, says Willem Sundblad, CEO of Oden Technologies, which provides data acquisition hardware and process analytics software for manufacturers. Shops needn’t overhaul equipment either. Analytical tools can connect to machines new and old.

“You can easily double your efficiency without purchasing new equipment or undergoing a massive factory overhaul, just by understanding your current process,” Sundblad says. “Shops find that they can become more productive just by allowing their teams to solve more problems faster and be as efficient as possible.”

Oden Technologies was formed because so much value was being lost in manufacturing due to quality or performance issues occurring on the shop floor, Sundblad continues. “Using data and analytics means making two engineers or operators as productive as 10. [Our] devices connect to machines and analyzes information for engineers so they can pinpoint where and how to make improvements to close loop controls, automation, and recipes, just to name a few.”

Acieta’s Poole says his company is “buried in work” with customers requesting help automating their shops. “Wherever there is a repeat job situation, automating is worth the effort,” he advises. “Over time, lack of labor will make it harder to maintain operations—possibly leaving no choice but to automate. We still have jobs to fill and automating allows shops of all sizes to keep up and grow.”

In fabrication, a seasoned press brake operator is a valuable find. “I’m old enough to remember old-fashioned machinists back when I worked as an engineer designing large machine tools,” recalls Poole. “Today the programmer sends the program to the shop floor where an operator loads it and pushes the right buttons—that’s not a ‘machinist’ as we remember it.”

Nonetheless, he insists there’s still a specialized talent involved. “You can’t just put material onto the machine and know it’ll turn out all right. There are variables that a talented operator will know how to handle. If you can automate the simpler tasks, you’re able to reallocate that press brake operator to more complicated and interesting work, keeping everyone happy.”

FFJ 1018 automation image2

Fabrication shops are prime targets for collaborative robots and the “out of box experience” of Universal Robots’ cobots means it takes less than an hour to unpack, mount and program the first simple task.

Standard variations

Automating allows for repeatability throughout the manufacturing process, but the press brake station isn’t the only pain point for fabricators. “Forming parts inconsistently affects welding, assembly and other downstream processes—one guy might work the material differently from the next. Between multiple [stations], multiple shifts—there’s a potential for variation and error that automating will eliminate,” Poole says.

Robots are used on shop floors as a workforce multiplier. “We focus on robotics in a collaborative setting,” says Rethink Robotics Product Manager Mike Fair. “Customers that are having a difficult time retaining or finding new talent can get tasks done using ‘cobots.’ We help [each customer] figure out which tasks are the best fit.”

The chairman of Trellidor Israel Group, a security barrier manufacturer, says he discovered Rethink Robotics at an exhibition. “We have quite a few big robots dedicated to one job and we wanted a more flexible robot that could do many odd jobs, especially taking a part from a stand to a press for punching and then packing,” explains Henry Zimmerman. As a result, workers previously burdened with manual tasks were freed to work on other, more complex processes.

The power of data

The immense worth of the data produced when automating might be overlooked to the detriment of a shop’s bottom line potential. “It goes beyond automating processes,” says Sundblad. “Without analytics, automating may not help you. One common misconception is that the tools used to help determine where inefficiencies lie are not accessible to smaller operations. That’s simply not true.”

Metrics are revealing and using that data to plan for the future is an integral part of surviving as a business.

“Staff shortages and high operator turnovers aren’t going to change,” Sundblad says. “Really the only thing companies can do is invest in technology systems that will allow them to be as efficient and productive as they can be. Passing the domain knowledge from the retiring workforce is crucial.”

Everyone is scrambling to figure out how to use Industry 4.0, and “it seems daunting, especially to smaller shops,” he says, but it’s an affordable necessity. “The question for smaller operations is whether they can afford not to automate.”

Rummaging through a morass of buzzwords like automation and IoT can be overwhelming. Companies like Bridgr in Quebec sift through the jargon and bridge the gap between adapting technology and staying competitive. “I work with manufacturing shops and understand how the assembly and production lines work,” explains Amira Boutouchent, Bridgr co-founder and CEO. “By finding out what work stations to automate, we’re able to audit the company and figure out how to best meet needs.”

Bridgr serves as a broker, linking shops with the technologies available to best suit their operations’ goals. “A company might come to us explaining that they believe they need a robot to become more efficient but after some research, our team may find out it’s cheaper to use different software or different tools,” Boutouchent says.

This was the case for a client fabricating parts used in 3D printers. “They told us the numbers and we figured out what software and automation would work without needing to invest in a robot at that time,” Boutouchent says. “The cost of a robot was too high for the things they were doing. Over the next few years, a robot will make sense but, in the meantime, they were able to install cameras and other measures to better automate control.”

FFJ 1018 automation image3

Mundane, repetitive tasks such as machine loading, welding, plasma cutting, deburring, sanding, polishing, riveting and quality inspection are now handled by UR cobots.

Beyond repeatable tasks

At Tube Supply in Houston, Paul Sorensen looks at long-term strategy to stay competitive in the oil fracking sector. “Investing in the future of our industry meant installing robots,” he says. The company employs 70 workers over its three locations spanning North America and fabricates/cuts steel for major oil tool manufacturers.

“Our customers require a lot of pieces of steel in varying lengths,” Sorensen says. “They used to buy full-length steel, bring it in house to cut and machine it but that’s changed. They now want us to deliver cut parts with very short lead times.”

To keep up with changing demand, Sorensen’s team purchased a Tsune cold saw. “While the saw allowed us to cut much faster, it required two to three workers to catch the parts,” he says. “If someone needs 500 cuts in a day, how would we deliver that? We’d have to shut down other customer orders on our other saws and that creates problems. We needed a better solution and automating was the answer.”

Sorensen’s team turned to Arc Specialties and installed a Kuka robot. “I watched the cartoon ‘The Jetsons’ as a kid and loved their robot, ‘Rosie’—so that’s what we named ours.” Clad in bright pink paint, Rosie has freed up Sorensen’s workers to take on other crucial tasks throughout the shop floor. “No one got laid off,” Sorensen adds. “It helped us service more customers faster, allowing our workers to do other things.”

Rosie will soon have a counterpart as Tube Supply prepares to install “The Hulk” next year to keep pace with demand.

“Customers like Tube Supply never make the same thing one after the other,” Arc Specialties’ Allford explains. “Each part is a different length so it’s about more than the cutting; it’s about the palletizing application. We had to build a system to check the lengths and diameters of each part to create the changing pallet patterns, otherwise a robot wouldn’t work because it’s more than just a repeatable task.”

Safety first

Cobots are another automated option, allowing side-by side assistance for workers that would otherwise be relegated to dangerous, often monotonous tasks, says Rethink Robotics’ Fair.

The company’s “Sawyer” model is a cobot built to work alongside workers. “Core applications like press tending, working on stamping machines, bending—all these require working with varying lengths of sharp-edged metals,” Fair explains. “A company may want to use their skilled employees on more specialized tasks where a cobot can help with repetitive, straightforward applications. Cobots are safely guarded in such a way that they can work alongside workers.”

If, however, the task is welding, “then it makes more sense to have a separate [automated] working cell since a dangerous torch is involved,” Fair says.

Automation can help fab shops concerned about press brake-related injuries. If operators are forming parts too close to the press brake tooling, it may be better to not have a person running the machine at all, Poole says. “There will be days when you might not have a press brake operator available so you have to be able to provide a robotic solution that will take over the process.”

The misconception that small- to mid-sized shops cannot achieve robotics automation due to cost or complexity still looms heavily in the metal fabrication realm. “This sector is ripe for cobots and we’re seeing a huge surge in demand from this segment right now,” says Esben Østergaard, CTO and co-founder of Universal Robots (UR). “We’re spearheading a whole new market.”

Smaller shops are making decisions faster once they realize how easily they can install cobots and see a relatively quick return on investment, Østergaard says.

“With traditional robots, the capital costs for the robots themselves only account for 25 to 30 percent of the total system costs,” he continues. “The remaining costs are associated with robot programming, setup, and dedicated, shielded work cells.”

In the case of Universal Robots cobots, the “out of box experience” means that the time it takes to unpack, mount and program the first simple task can be done within an hour. “Our cobots take up much less floor space than a traditional industrial application as they typically don’t require safety cages due to the built-in safety system that makes the UR cobot stop when it encounters obstacles in its route,” explains Østergaard.

“Average [ROI] is fastest in the industry,” he claims, “with each cobot paying itself back in as little as one to two months.

Fab shops are prime targets for collaborative robots, according to Østergaard. “Cobots free up employees for more value-added work. Mundane, repetitive tasks such as machine loading, welding, plasma cutting, deburring, sanding, polishing, riveting, and quality inspection are now handled by UR cobots in small shops and large enterprises alike.”

Flexible automation

Robots must be versatile, able to change between work stations easily and frequently if necessary. “Accessories are also important. We developed five different ClickSmart gripper kits to help customers handle material easier so there is less human involvement, allowing for that talent to be allocated elsewhere,” says Rethink Robotics’ Fair.

Without much effort, Sawyer can be moved anywhere within a shop. Using integrated vision systems, the module allows the user to check for quality issues, and adjust part position within the machine they’re running.

“Simple ideas like a QR code decal on each work station allow the robot to identify where it is located in the shop, allowing it to start working immediately,” Fair explains. “The robot’s camera knows where it is and starts running the task without any operator input.

“Metal fab shops stand to benefit in particular because our Sawyer robot has a 4 kg payload with max reach of 1,260 mm, allowing users to delegate it to run dangerous or dirty tasks with long cycle times where humans are usually waiting around for the machine to complete,” Fair says.

Opening up more complicated and critical thinking-geared tasks to shop floor operators will benefit both employer and employee alike. “We are facing a looming skills gap in the manufacturing industry that we need to bridge by all means possible,” says Universal Robots’ Østergaard. Facilitating knowledge creation and access to robots are an important step in that direction.

“It’s about putting the right solution in a factory that will help employees not by changing everything they know. For example, we can use the right software in machines and apply sensors rather than outright replacing equipment,” explains Bridgr’s Boutouchent. “Once you get the data, [the next step is to] identify what other technology solutions will help increase productivity and reduce costs.” FFJ


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