4 Strategies for Improving Throughput in Robotic Welding Applications

Robotic welding systems can provide many companies with increased productivity, improved quality and reduced costs — important and differentiating benefits in the fabrication and manufacturing world. However, simply implementing a robot or two isn’t enough to maximize such benefits. Organizations must understand where they should focus their resources to achieve the most gain. To help remain competitive, companies need continually to look for ways to increase throughput in their overall robotic welding process, while also keeping costs low and quality on par.                    

To remain competitive, companies need to continually look for
ways to increase throughput in their overall robotic welding process,
while also keeping costs low and quality on par.  
  
 

But given the demographic changes taking place throughout the welding industry — many companies are seeing more turnover in management as longtime supervisors retire and new leaders join the ranks — some managers may not have as much experience with robotic welding systems. Determining how to keep the welding operation functioning in the most efficient, productive and profitable manner may become an intimidating task.

This article discusses four key strategies to help welding managers, particularly those new to the job, maximize throughput in robotic welding applications.

1.    Streamline in-house processes
One of the first steps in improving throughput in robotic welding applications is streamlining in-house processes from beginning to end, to minimize the number of non-value-added activities. Streamlining begins with establishing a clear understanding of the entire production process as it currently functions. Issues to consider include: how long it takes to make a part; how long it takes for a part to go through the entire system; how many machines run at once; how many machines run at full capacity; floor space utilization; how often the part is handled; and proximity of components to the process areas. Gathering this kind of data is helpful in establishing baselines. Once there is an understanding of the entire process, welding managers can start looking for areas to improve.

Many of the variable costs in manufacturing come from the process of actually putting products together, so reducing or eliminating non-value-added activities in this part of the process can help to reduce costs. Understanding how much time it takes for a component to move through the entire production process also can reduce the volume of inventory waiting to be processed, which saves costly space. It may also minimize some of the labor used to manage inventory, allowing it to be dedicated elsewhere in the welding operation to help improve the process.

2.    Seek out industry experts
Another way to become more efficient in robotic welding processes is to seek out other manufacturers or industry experts who have had success in this area. Find another manufacturer that produces similar products (but is not a competitor) and observe their facilities and production processes. Look for these opportunities with companies known for strength in efficient fabrication or manufacturing, and ones that are gaining success in their robotic welding applications. In short, finding resources that are comparable and appropriate can help with the process of benchmarking areas for improvement.   

Managers also can capitalize on relationships with industry colleagues and connect with other experts via professional organizations and societies. These networking opportunities can offer good resources for industry knowledge and best practices that can then be applied within the robotic welding process.        

Managers may also find it useful to seek advice on best practices from the manufacturer or the integrator of the robotic welding system or products (such as robotic MIG guns, consumables or peripherals). These sources often have information to provide about integrating the products with existing equipment or investments that can be made to improve throughput. 

3.    Analyze key cost drivers
Another important step for increasing throughput in robotic welding processes is understanding what the key cost drivers are. Understanding the fixed costs and the variable costs in each step of the process enables managers to identify the key cost drivers in the complete production process. Once they have identified and measured the key cost drivers, managers can use that information to decide where to focus attention for improvement efforts to get the biggest impact. This approach can help companies become more efficient and effective operations.                                                 

Some of the questions to consider when conducting a detailed analysis of cost drivers in manufacturing and fabrication include: how much it costs to produce a part; the time required to perform an activity; how much it costs for equipment maintenance; and how much it costs in lost productivity if equipment is not functioning properly. A detailed analysis of cost drivers also can help a company identify non-value-added activities, such as grinding, cleanup and part movement, and how much time is spent on those activities. This analysis is another step in deciding where improvements can be made to make the most impact on throughput.                            

The purpose of a detailed analysis that looks at time and costs is to clarify and measure cost drivers, with the aim of developing a strategy to improve productivity.

4.    Continue the process
Companies can spend a lot of time and effort to measure costs and processes, and develop solutions to improve efficiencies, but may overlook the next key steps: actually following through with the improvement plans and then measuring those accomplishments. Managers may think of improving throughput as an event, when really it’s a process.                                    

Hatching good ideas and formulating solutions is important, but implementing those plans and then revisiting them for periodic review is just as important. The bottom line is managers should ask, “Are we actually doing what we said we would do, and is it working?”                                        

Implementation is most effective when it happens as a collaborative effort, rather than as a top-down mandate from management. Involve employees from the plant floor up through company management when formulating initiatives. This kind of widespread involvement and buy-in is necessary for continuous improvement and for change to successfully occur. After collaborative implementation, it’s important to follow up with an effective way to easily measure the efforts. An effective measurement strategy helps verify if the implemented processes are paying off. Following a “plan-do-check-act” model of continuous improvement can help manufacturing and fabrication facilities improve throughput in robotic welding applications.