Automation advancements

By Lisa Rummler

February 2009 - In the 1960s, robots existed only in science-fiction novels--they didn’t work in factories. So when David R. Miller opened Miller Welding & Machine Co., Brookville, Pa., in 1963, he probably didn’t imagine a time when his employees would use robots to perform welding and other manufacturing operations. But that’s exactly what they’re doing today.

Dan Miller, project engineer at Miller Welding & Machine, says that as the company’s manufacturing capabilities evolved, so did the need for more advanced technology.

"We started as a welding shop, just making fabrications," he says. "We’ve grown to include machining and finishing, such as dry paint, powder coating and wet paint. We’ve also expanded into assembly. We got our first robot about five years ago, and we’re up to 13 robot arms now. In the last year or so, we’ve taken delivery on seven of those arms, so it’s definitely a growing part of the business."

The company’s market mainly consists of the mining and construction industries, primarily working for large OEMs. For the most part, Miller Welding & Machine makes heavier steel fabrications, as well as machined and assembled pieces. About 75 to 100 of the company’s 250 employees are welders. Miller Welding & Machine has automated production on its aerial work platforms, and Miller says the company is also looking into automating welding on underground mining and material handling equipment.

"We try to be a single-source provider," says Miller. "Ninety-nine percent of the business is plain carbon steel up through T1. We buy raw plate and raw tubing, and we try to see that piece of equipment through until it’s a finished part that our customer can assemble into their machine. We do everything--burning, forming, welding, machining, painting and mechanical assembly--to meet our customers’ needs."

Going robotic
To build on its success achieving this goal, Miller Welding & Machine began introducing robots into its welding operations. These included two FabWorld welding cells from Motoman Inc., West Carrollton, Ohio, which perform heavy-deposition welding.

The two dual-robot systems each include two Motoman EA1900N Expert Arc welding robots and two NX100 robot DR2C controllers. In each cell, the two welding robots are programmed using a single programming pendant, and built-in anti-collision software enables the arms to work in proximity without collision. Fully integrated, with process equipment, positioners, fixtures and safeguarding, the FabWorld workcells allow Miller Welding & Machine to robotically weld areas that present ergonomic challenges for manual welders, such as a 4-ft. area in a channel between two plates.

The robot systems have improved productivity. Depending on part number, weldments that required three hours to manually weld can be robotically welded in 50 minutes. Others that required five to six hours to manually weld can be robotically welded in 90 minutes.

Miller Welding & Machine also found similar results with its newest robot system: a Motoman plasma cutting and material handling cell.

In December 2007, Miller Welding & Machine began to investigate a variety of robotic solutions in an effort to improve a process in which employees mechanically drilled holes into rectangular steel tubing, 3-in.-by-6-in. rectangle up to 5-in.-by-8-in. in the profile and 9 ft. to 12 ft. long.

"At our peak of production, we were using 300 of those a day," says Miller. "Our existing process was labor-intensive, and it required up to three machines and manual handling steps to create all the features in a single part."

Later, Miller Welding & Machine placed an order for a customized Motoman solution, which includes two HP20-6 plasma cutting robots, one HP350 material handling robot and three NX100 robot controllers. The robotic workcell was delivered in late October and was fully programmed and running in December. Miller says the robotic workcell has reduced direct labor per part by about three-quarters, reduced handling steps by cutting all features in a single setup and improved material flow.

"We don’t run the same part 250 times," he says. "We run what we call bundles, and a bundle of parts would be between six and 10 pieces of tubing, between two and four different types of material. We’ll load those parts in the correct order, and the machine will automatically use a different program to cut each part in that sequence so that when the 10 parts come out the other side of the fixture, they’re not just 10 of the same thing. Rather, they’re the right 10 parts to make the machine, and now we have one bundle of tubing that’s everything required to make a machine."

In doing so, the new robotic workcell has reduced the amount of material on the shop floor, saving space. Miller says it’s also reduced work in process, as well as simplified and streamlined the company’s inventory process. Further, because one of the plasma cutting robots uses an automatic gas console, it can also be used to perform part marking. This reduces operator intervention and eliminates the need for a separate part-marking station.

Back to school
When Miller Welding & Machine purchased the plasma cutting and material handling system, not only did it get robots, it also received formal training from Motoman. Miller says this included sessions at the Motoman Technical Education Center and 80 hours of on-site programming assistance after the workcell was shipped to the plant.

"Motoman has been good about making sure the process gets started up correctly," says Miller. "We’ve definitely found that with a new piece of equipment, knowing how to run it properly is important."

Motoman encourages its customers to train their employees on new equipment.

"When customers are properly trained, it allows them to maximize the productivity of their robotic system and results in a faster return on investment," says Harald Bransch, regional sales manager at Motoman. "Motoman’s Technical Education Center is modeled like a trade school or community college focused exclusively on robotic applications."

Motoman offers a variety of training accredited by the International Association for Continuing Education and Training, including basic through advanced robot programming, at the 8,500-sq.-ft. MTEC?facility. Training is also offered at other Motoman locations and on-site at customers’ facilities.

Bransch says he thinks Miller Welding & Machine stresses the importance of training on equipment, which has helped maximize the benefits it’s experienced with Motoman’s robotic workcells.

"There’s nothing passive about how they’ve done the implementations, and it shows because they do it quite well," he says. "Their success lies in the fact that they’ve taken a great deal of time and energy to own the equipment and the systems there." FFJ

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  • Miller Welding & Machine Co.
    Brookville, Pa.
    phone: 814/849-3061
    fax: 814/849-7508

  • Motoman Inc.
    West Carrollton, Ohio
    phone: 937/847-6200
    fax: 937/847-6277


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