Robotic Technology

Competitive gains

By Lisa Rummler

July/August 2010 - W.M. Inc., Washingtonville, Ohio, manufactures more than 300 types of pulleys. Accordingly, nearly every product the company welds is a circle--rarely does W.M. Inc. deal with straight lines.

Before it purchased a robotic FlexArc 500C welding system from ABB Robotics, Auburn Hills, Mich., W.M. Inc. required three hard-automation machines to keep up with production demands.

"What we had was older equipment, and we were only able to weld one piece at a time," says Suzanne Viole, vice president at W.M. Inc.

For many years, the company has worked with Airgas Great Lakes, Independence, Ohio, and Viole says her account manager, Jeff Cummings, often had suggested W.M. Inc. purchase a robot to optimize its operations.

"He has always called on me and said, ‘When are you ready for a robot?’" says Viole. "And finally, we thought, ‘This is the time to do it.’"

That was in June 2009. Cummings and his colleagues quoted W.M. Inc. one company’s robot. Soon after, Airgas began partnering with ABB Robotics, so it was able to provide a quote for the FlexArc system.

"We sat down and looked at the quotes, and ABB was able to give us more for less," says Viole. "They were able to give us a larger weld area than the competitor’s robot and a few other benefits that the other company was not able to offer. Another thing was that the programming [was] a Windows-based program. We felt that it would be easily adaptable to our product line.

"It was a big change, but it was a change for the better because it was going to enable us to update our technology and take us to where we needed to be with our competitors so that we were able to be more competitive. The technology helps differentiate us and gives us an edge."

Team effort
After Cummings helped start the process with W.M. Inc., he brought in Frank Bush, automation specialist at Airgas Great Lakes.

"Airgas sells most major brands of welding robotics," says Bush. "It’s my job to assess the customer’s needs and come up with the proper solution. So that’s exactly what I did with W.M. Inc., and of course, ABB was the best solution for the customer."

One element that sets ABB Robotics apart is its simulation and offline programming software, RobotStudio, Bush says.

"It enables the customer to program the robot offline, thus keeping the robot running while they’re programming," he says. "That’s very important because downtime is what costs the customer an extreme amount of money. When a robot is not welding, of course, that’s called downtime, and they lose money rather than make money.

"It was our job to come up with a product that would allow them to weld, at any time that they want, any of the 300 different pulleys that they manufacture either all spaced together or maybe different pulleys within the same side of the table."

In addition to its larger work area, the FlexArc system also offers a high level of repeatability. Bush cites these factors as reasons why W.M. Inc. decided to purchase the robotic welder. He also says Airgas’ commitment to after-sale support provided an incentive.

"The unique thing that Airgas brings to the table is that we have teams of specialists, whether they’re automation specialists, welding specialists or whatever--if they’re a specialist and a customer needs our support after the sale, we will go back and support the customer, through the specialist, at no charge," says Bush.

Additionally, ABB Robotics provides training for all customers that purchase its products, including FlexArc welding systems.

The company offers many standard courses for end users, as well as CRAW (certified robotic arc welding) certification programs for welding engineers, says Mark Oxlade, ABB Robotics welding manager for the eastern region of the United States.

"The guys from W.M. Inc. have attended formal training courses, which usually last about a week for the main courses," says Oxlade. "We also went down. We sent the [trainer] down two times, a week at a time. We helped them get their programs straightened out and showed them some best-practice methodology for putting good welding programs into an arc welding cell."

Sum of its parts
Every FlexArc system consists of a robot, a positioner and safety equipment already put together. The integrator (Airgas, in the case of W.M. Inc.) adds the welder, the torch and any peripheral equipment, such as a cleaning station.

Customers can hook all major power-source suppliers to the FlexArc system, which opens the door to what types of material the customer wants to process, Oxlade says. These include stainless steel, aluminum and other more exotic metals.

"That then becomes a function of what wire and gas they’re going to use," he says. "It’s fairly open as to what the FlexArc can use as its welding or cutting process."

The FlexArc 500C has two work stations, each capable of carrying 1,100 lbs. on either side. It has one IRB 1600ID (internally dressed) robot adjacent to the work stations, which is integrated with the IRBP 500C 180-degree index positioner.

It also has a metal mounting base, which is transportable with forklift pockets, as well as human-machine interface.

The FlexArc 500C offers repeatability of 0.004 in. Its minimum interchange time is 3.3 seconds, and its maximum interchange time is 4 seconds.

Kicking it up a notch
W.M. Inc. mainly uses its FlexArc 500C to weld 7-gauge to 9-gauge steel but also sometimes works with 0.25-in. steel.

W.M. Inc. has had a positive experience with the robotic welding system overall, and it has provided specific benefits, says Viole.

"It has really helped us through our season this year. It has been a blessing to have it because our demand has increased significantly," she says. "The last two years were slow. We were down quite a bit due to the economy, and now we’ve picked up significantly this year. We’re up 45 percent over what we were the last two years. So it has helped in that respect because we’re able to weld four different parts at one time.

"Our previous equipment would have never allowed us to be able to stay ahead of where we’re at. So it opens up doors for W.M. Inc. to be more versatile and competitive. We can always do other things with the robot. We are not limited to pulleys."

The FlexArc 500C also enabled W.M. Inc. to pick up a job from one of its customers that it would not have been able to complete before September 2009, when the company purchased the system.

"We needed to have the capability of skip welding and specific weld length, and the equipment we replaced did not have that capability," says Viole. "We would never have been able to get this particular job had we not had the robot."

And given the relatively small size of W.M. Inc. (nearly 40 employees), the FlexArc 500C has had an especially far-reaching impact.

"[We have] taken it to the next level with robotics," says Viole. FFJ

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  • ABB Robotics
    Auburn Hills, Mich.
    phone: 248/391-9000

  • Airgas Great Lakes
    Independence, Ohio
    phone: 216/642-6600

  • W.M. Inc.
    Washingtonville, Ohio
    phone: 330/427-6115
    fax: 330/427-6784


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