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Robotic Technology

Planting a seed

By Abbe Miller

To plant a field of corn or soybeans or any crop for that matter, a farmer needs to begin with a reasonably clean slate. For a seed to nestle itself into the earth, the land can’t be littered with the remnants from last season’s harvest. So to create a hospitable growing environment, there are two choices: intensive tillage, where crop debris is plowed and removed, taking with it the carbon-rich soil or, the more earth-friendly alternative, no-till to minimum-till farming, where last year’s stocks and husks are simply pushed aside to make way for the fledglings. In the latter of the two methods, the decomposing crop residue fortifies the ground with nutrients, thereby reducing the need for chemical-heavy fertilizers.

In the early 1990s, as environmentalists and farmers alike were making an aggressive push toward more no-till to minimum-till practices, Jerry Groff, a Nebraska farmer, was developing his finger row cleaner. During that time his company, Groff Ag Improvements LLC, based then in Imperial, Neb., had been manufacturing farming implements since the 1970s, such as the row flex placer, an application device for fertilizer. The plan for the new patented disk attachment would be to sweep farm trash a minimum of 8 in. away from a seed’s eventual resting place. The goal was to avoid hairpinning.

"Hairpinning happens when a seed is placed on top of debris as opposed to in the soil," says Allan Winick, the current owner and president of Groff Ag, now based in Wellington, Co. "That seed won’t germinate well because it will dry out too fast."

As the finger row cleaner clears the way, the planter follows behind on the same attachment, depositing the fragile seeds into the ground. Groff Ag, however, isn’t the only manufacturer to have developed an implement that acts similarly. The recent spike in ethanol demand is keeping all involved up against the clock to ramp-up corn production. Since the products were launched, Winick says that more than 60,000 units have been shipped to farmers across the United States.

"The rest of the country is kind of stagnant, but if you’re hooked to energy in any way, which the commodities are right now, it’s a boom," says Winick, who became involved with the company in 1997. "Corn and soybeans are making record highs."

Plowing through production
Winick says that although he does have competition, it’s the competition that drives the market and keeps him on his toes. To stay ahead of the pack, Winick incorporated an automated robotic welder from The Lincoln Electric Co., Cleveland, into his manufacturing facility. The eCell dual fixed table robotic cell dramatically lowered Groff Ag’s weld times, improved the quality of the welds and freed up Winick to focus on other aspects of the business.

"I was the chief cook and bottle washer as far as welding was concerned," Winick explains. "I did all of the welding, but I couldn’t keep up. So that’s when we decided that we needed to put in a robot. Today, I’m probably 70 percent more efficient on my production time." The increase in productivity can be seen in the assembly of both the finger row cleaner and the row flex placer products.

"For the fertilizer bracket, which is part of the row flex placer, it used to take seven minutes to hand weld," he says. "I’m welding it right now with the robot in 90 seconds. It keeps me busy just loading parts. Our fixtures, which are where you place the parts, are all for high production. For the row flex placer, you place three parts in the fixtures and then you clamp them. Next you just hit start on the robot, which then tacks those three parts together. And then everything unclamps and the robot spins it and welds it at the same time."

His robot can perform MIG welding in short arc and spray, synergic MIG welding, pulse MIG welding, as well as flux-cored arc welding. For Groff Ag, plasma-cut pieces are pulse-welded using 0.045-in.-diameter wire with a 90 percent argon, 10 percent carbon dioxide shielding gas. Quite versatile, the robotic welder is capable of those functions on steel, stainless steel and aluminum. But steel is the metal of choice for both of Groff Ag’s products. Winick says that in addition to picking up the welding pace at Groff Ag, the robot has forced the company to become a better fabricator in every sense of the word.

"One thing that the robot has done is make us more critical as to how we cut parts and how we fit parts up," he explains. "The robot doesn’t know if there’s a gap, which makes it not weld the part properly. The robot likes consistency. It likes everything to fit the same way as the last one. We’re also a lot more picky on our steel supply, making sure that our tolerances on the outside diameter on square tubing is where it needs to be so that it’ll fit into the fixtures correctly. The robot fixture is set up for 1.995 in. to 2.01 in. in thickness. Recently we ran into some 2.2-in. material, which was out of our tolerance, so it wouldn’t fit in the fixture and we had to sand them all down."

With the wealth of welding experience that Winick has under his belt, he can eyeball any manufactured part and determine whether it’s been hand-welded or welded by equipment similar to his eCell. "I can tell whether the welder was getting a little tired and fatigued by the end of the day or if his mind wasn’t on his work," Winick says. "The robot certainly improved operations because our welds all look wonderful."

Cream of the crop
The eCell, which is marketed for automated welding on small- to medium-sized parts, is also ideal for shops with a similar description. Winick’s small, six-man operation was well-suited for Lincoln’s entry-level robot. Its small footprint fit into the Groff Ag facility with ease, and Winick says that its price tag was in the range of a seasoned welder’s annual salary. The return on investment was realized in little to no time.

"The robot was a no-brainer for us," he says. "A good welder is naturally going to want vacation and sick days, or he might come in with an attitude, especially if it’s on a Saturday." The eCell, however, doesn’t make a peep besides the subtle hum of Lincoln’s Power Wave 355M, the digitally controlled, 350-amp inverter welding power source.

To top it off, the learning curve was hardly an issue, thanks to Lincoln’s comprehensive training center in Cleveland that Winick attended shortly after the robot arrived completely assembled at his facility. The one-week course acclimated Winick to his new "employee," and if he encounters any maintenance issues that weren’t covered in the course or that he can’t solve on his own, he says that his service supplier is quite responsive. Since initially purchasing the eCell two years ago, however, Winick hasn’t run across many problems. When the motherboard went down, he barely skipped a beat.

"Lincoln overnighted the part out of Cleveland," he says. "My guy called them at 3 p.m., which would have been 4 p.m. in Cleveland. They drove it down, put it on a plane and I had it by the next morning. I was up and running by noon. Sure I missed out on the two days I waited to get the service tech in, but from the time that he found out what the problem was and by the time we got back up and running, I’d only lost about six hours." And as anyone can attest, time is money.

"It used to be if you hand-welded, you’d try to get caught up on all of this stuff in the summertime and then try to stay ahead of it through the winter," Winick says. "Now, however, we can build as the orders come in. We can promise deliveries. We don’t have to keep so much inventory, and plus, it saved me a man."

So while Winick’s robotic welder is saving him on the time that always seemed so fleeting, Groff Ag’s products, in the same vein, are also preserving time. With every farmer that chooses to implement no-till to medium-till methods, a little bit of time is bought for Mother Earth, as well. FFJ

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