Special Report: Automation


By Lynn Stanley


The Star Wars franchise took fans on an epic journey to fictional worlds where the Jedi Order and Rebel Alliance fought to overcome the evil of the Galactic Empire. Robots and droids—programmed for myriad tasks— took center stage alongside their human counterparts, often rising to the role of a hero with skillsets like welding. In Star Wars: A New Hope, astromech droid R2-D2 arc welds the stabilizer on Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing, allowing him to destroy the Death Star.

In a galaxy closer to home, fabricators are also looking at ways to turn welding tasks over to collaborative robots. To help job shops and contract manufacturers access the technology, companies like Fanuc America Corp., Acieta LLC, Vectis Automation and Productive Robotics LLC are working to make cobot welding systems more cost competitive and easier to use. The American Welding Society (AWS)—which spearheads advances in the science, technology and application of welding, allied joining and cutting processes—has also seen demand for robotic welding systems rise as the pool of skilled human welders has dwindled.

While equipment manufacturers work to perfect “ready-to-weld” cobots, AWS is tackling an annual shortfall of approximately 84,000 welders. “We’re trying to address the deficit through what we call the four pillars: awareness, accessibility, automation and productivity,” says Gary Konarska, CEO and automation expert for AWS. “We see adoption of automation as one way to bridge the gap between industry demand and our collective ability to fill jobs. The D16 Committee on Robotic and Automatic Welding is a key component of that.”

The D16 suite of documents fosters the exchange of technical information among manufacturers, installers, integrators and operators of robotic and automated equipment, says incoming chairperson Karen Gilgenbach, zone vice president for Matheson Tri-Gas Inc. “The group of documents gives people one standardized place to look for information integral to the successful adoption of robots.”


      With Productive Robotics’ “no programming” dedicated welding software, any employee can teach the cobot to weld by physically showing it what to do.

Adoption of automation might also help to dispel the dirty-and-dangerous stigma that skilled trades still face.

“We can leverage more interest among young people by promoting the idea that implementing automation is cutting-edge technology. Easy-to-program cobots could prove attractive to someone who isn’t interested in being under the hood eight hours a day welding, but is interested in applied science.”

Mark Scherler, general manager of Fanuc America’s materials joining segment, sees cobots as an automation tool fabricators can use to meet production needs and train new talent to offset the labor deficit.


“Until recently, the typical response from job shop personnel that make one-offs and small batches was, ‘I don’t want to program a robot for just one part,’” he says. “However, if they train their operators, once they have that skill set, they can program a cobot very quickly even if it’s just for one part.” The key especially for fabricators that have never used a cobot is an interface that users can learn quickly.


      As a Fanuc Authorized System Integrator, Certified Vision Specialist, and Certified Servicing Integrator, Acieta LLC integrates standard and custom automation solutions for a variety of applications.


      Vectis Automation helps fabricators of all sizes and types leverage automation by integrating a variety of cobot welding and cutting systems with Universal Robots’ 4th generation cobot arm.

“The other advantage we are seeing with intuitive automation is that an operator can program, run and manage multiple cobot welding stations at the same time,” Scherler continues. “This means a job shop doesn’t have to worry about finding and hiring additional welders. It can use the welder it has on staff to manage those cells instead of running a manual station. It gives the company an opportunity to invest in its employee, who gains new skills.”

Fanuc introduced its first collaborative robot in 2015. The company expanded its latest CRX cobot line with three new models in 2022. The CRX series is engineered for manufacturers that have little to no robotic experience. The cobots feature a new Fanuc programming interface with simple dragand-drop functions on a tablet teach pendant. The manufacturer builds 11 cobot models with payloads from 4 to 35 kg. Sensitive contact detection allows the CRX cobots to work safely alongside people.

“Most welds can be made with a cobot,” says Scherler. “But if the part requires multiple welds and advanced repositioning, the application might be better suited to a traditional robot. A risk analysis is a good first step toward making the right choice. A good automation partner can also help a fabricator determine ROI.”


     An operator can build and store a library of weld recipes, gaining control and customization of all welding parameters.

84,000 Average welding jobs to be filled annually between 2022–2025. 336,000 New welding professionals projected to be needed by 2026.


       Run by OB7 Stretch, Productive Robotics’ Blaze LF and Blaze Duo welding systems provide an all-in-one solution for high production and large part robotic welding.

Acieta LLC ranks in the top 2 percent of Fanuc’s Authorized System Integrators (ASIs). Nick Cowell, regional automation manager for Acieta, has 43 years of experience much of it spent building tooling for welding cells.

“Over the last decade, we have seen some significant advances in power supplies and communication for robots,” he says. “Now the power supplies are talking to the robot better. They get along much better in the sandbox.”

In the past, says Cowell, the power supply could communicate but the programmer may take extra steps to make the working relationship seamless between the two. The improvements robot manufacturers have made to their software and programming have also enhanced the use of cobots with welding applications. “Our role is to integrate the power supply and cobot [or robot] with the tooling, the customer’s part and all the ancillary equipment the process requires.”


Certified by the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), Acieta primarily integrates automation solutions for material handling, welding and press brake applications. Fabricators that are considering employing a cobot or robot should first gather company-wide support, identify criteria for successful operation, a timeframe for installation and any budget constraints.

“It’s not like ordering a crescent wrench,” says Cowell. “It’s an in-depth process, one that we work through together with the customer.”

Acieta has a line of standard automation cells but custom projects comprise 80 percent of its order base. Sales engineers consider upstream and downstream processes on either side of the welding cell. Acieta automation engineers use analysis to identify processes that can be combined to increase productivity, reduce costs and improve safety.

The company holds an Advancing Vision + Imaging (AIA) certification and is a Fanuc-certified servicing integrator. Training is especially important for first-time users, Cowell notes. Acieta’s service technicians and parts inventory are available 24/7 and positioned across the U.S. The majority of welding automation requests we are getting is for MIG welding. We also see companies looking at automating spot welding and TIG welding.”

Cowell feels the jury is still out on whether cobot welding is completely safe. “Job shops that purchase a welding cell with a cobot included need to perform a risk assessment,” he says. Robot manufacturers are developing software that makes cobots and robots easier to program. “The robot manufacturer that creates the easiest to program software will be a winner.”


The American Welding Society’s Foundation offers scholarships for students attending trade schools, community colleges and four year universities.

According to Josh Pawley, co-founder and vice president of Vectis Automation, cobot welding technology and people’s perceptions about automation remain in a state of flux. “Welding is an intrinsic part of the value chain,” he says. “Society wouldn’t exist at the level it does today without widespread welding.”

Pawley helped establish Vectis in 2019 to serve a growing market space for cobot welders and the companies that can benefit from adoption of the technology.


“Larger corporations may be able to bear the cost and risk of traditional automation but the smaller shops that make up 75 percent of America’s 250,000-plus manufacturers have been left behind,” Pawley says. “Our mission is to provide those smaller companies with flexible automation tools they can leverage to boost productivity and soften the impact of lost labor. Medium and large corporations have the same challenges and see the same benefits that cobot welding and cutting can provide.”

In 2019, Vectis teamed up with Universal Robots when the company introduced a fourth-generation cobot arm.

“It was a happy convergence,” Pawley says of the partnership. “Cobots can help companies unable to get over the hurdle posed by traditional robotic welding,” he says. “Large manufacturers can use them to supplement manual and automated welding processes.”

Vectis produces product configurations for a broad range of applications from general fabrication and mining equipment to automotive aftermarket parts and structural steels.

The fundamentals for implementing successful automation haven’t changed as the technology has advanced.“We dive deep into the details with a customer to reduce the potential for any surprises down the road,” says Pawley. “Questions begin with an evaluation of whether or not the part is a fit for automation in general. Is the weldment consistent enough to be automated successfully? What pitfalls can we help the manufacturer avoid?

“We also look at part design, material specifications and volumes. By helping a customer navigate the nuances of automation, we work to meet their needs today and in the future.” Customers are justifying cobot welding systems for part volumes between 1 to 10,000 parts, with the chunk of the bell curve being 20 to 1,000 units for each specific part number, Pawley says. Software and ease of programming continues to present the biggest challenge to widespread adoption of cobot welding systems. “Our software focuses on allowing a broader range of people learning to use the system,” he says.

“Welders, fabricators and grinders can learn our interfaces. It’s a tool intended for the welder/fabricator, not the engineer/programmer. We probably get a call a week from a company that has lost its cobot operator. Our self-guided training system allows them to get back up and running quickly. It is easy to use, and a job shop or fabricator doesn’t have to send personnel off site for training.”


          Fanuc’s CRX series cobot line features a new programming interface with drag-and-drop functions on a tablet teach pendant.

Finding a trustworthy supplier is as important as the automation hardware and software. “We give our customers a fishing pole and teach them how to fish,” Pawley says.


Productive Robotics President and Founder Zac Bogart put his own twist on easy programming when he introduced OB7, a line of 7-axis, augmented intelligence collaborative robots, in 2010.

“Programming is only easy for programmers,” he says. “So we eliminated it entirely. An operator simply shows OB7 what to do by walking it through the steps of a process. The cobot’s teach-bytouch design allows it to learn a job in a matter of minutes. We were able to remove barriers like complex integration and high costs, and put budget-friendly robotic automation into the hands of small job shops and large manufacturers.”

In recent years, the shrinking pool of welders caught Bogart’s attention. “We felt that the simplicity of our teach-by-touch method would lend itself to welding applications in a way that hasn’t been done before,” he says.

Instead of adapting a cobot that was not designed for welding, Productive Robotics tasked its primary welding engineer to develop an integrated design from the ground up. The design/build took 18 months and was based on input from welders at job shops and contract manufacturers.

“The advances in power supplies over the last 10 years allowed us to access recipes for highly refined welding parameters that cover every detail from material and voltage to wire density, speed and the pre-flow and post-flow of welding gas to create and maintain an optimal environment,” Bogart says. “We combined our teach-by-touch, no-programming software with recipes from a state-of-the-art power supply to equip employees with the capability to achieve perfect welds. We also eliminated robot jargon, tool points and vector angles.”

At Fabtech 2022, Productive Robotics introduced its new all-in-one Blaze Duo and Blaze LF. The twostation and large table single- station welding systems are run by the teach-by-touch OB7 Stretch cobot. Designed for extra-large parts, the Blaze LF’s 8-ft .-long table is the largest on the market.

Suited for high-volume production, the Blaze Duo features automatic doors that separate two identical weld stations. This configuration allows the operator to safely set up one job while the OB7 welds another part. “Whether the job is simple or requires complex paths, different recipes or weld types, the OB7 can learn the job in minutes,” says Bogart. The “no programming” technology allows anyone, regardless of experience, to teach OB7 to weld.

Each chamber has filtered fume extraction and live video monitoring. Welding helmets and curtains are not required. If an operator has a high-volume job, he or she can set up the same job in both chambers for 100 percent run time. The chambers can also be set up individually for different jobs.

The system arrives assembled and wired along with a boxed cobot that can be installed quickly. The welder power supply is pre-installed and communication between the cobot and power supply is automatic. Welding recipes are preconfigured prior to the cobot’s arrival. And since the welding systems are plug-and-play, no integrator is required.

Productive Robotics is building a new factory dedicated to the production of Blaze Duo and Blaze LF cobot welding systems. Bogart also hinted the company may introduce another cobot welding cell for large applications.

Today, more than 50 percent of U.S. metal- based products require welding. An estimated 336,000 new welding professionals will be needed by 2026. Armed with technology, experience and creative thinking, cobot manufacturers and integrators are making the jump to light speed to help fabricators and job shops close the gap in a fast-growing field. MM

Acieta LLC, 855/412-1397, 

American Welding Society, 800/443-9353,

Fanuc America Corp., 888/326-8287,

Productive Robotics LLC, 805/255-9300,

Vectis Automation, 970/852-5200,


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