Automated Intelligence:

Deciding Whether Automation is Right For You

Automated welding systems have the potential to increase productivity, improve weld quality, reduce labor and materials costs, mitigate the welder shortage and most importantly increase a company’s overall profitability. These systems can be expensive, but they have come down in price substantially over the past 10 years, and those costs need to be understood within the context of the benefits the system provides. In a globally competitive environment, rather than asking yourself whether you can afford to automate, you might consider asking whether you can afford not to automate.

Automation won’t be right for every company, however, and choosing the right system for your operations is crucial to ensuring a wise investment. Like most purchasing decisions, success in automation depends almost entirely on planning and preparation. The rewards can be significant, but so too can the costs in making the wrong decision. Below are eight factors that you need to consider when deciding whether and how to automate your welding operations.

1. Why Automate?
A single automated welding system can perform the welding of up to three employees, oftentimes with better quality results, and eliminate bottlenecks that occur at the welding stage of the manufacturing process. But that’s not all.

An automated system can lower your consumables cost by using only as much filler metal as is necessary. It can also greatly reduce your scrap and rework rates by improving the visual and mechanical quality of your welds, and reducing or eliminating spatter.

Further, automating your welding can reduce your labor costs, allowing you to reallocate those resources elsewhere in your plant. If you are in an industry where your competition is still welding by hand, investing in an automated system could provide you with a competitive advantage in your customers’ minds.

2. Payback
The benefits of automating can be significant, but those benefits come at a price. Many companies, especially smaller fabricators and those with frequently changing production lines, need to see a payback period of no more than 12-15 months in order to justify the investment. On the other hand, companies that know their production needs will not change for years can often justify a longer payback period.

Calculating payback first involves determining your current product cycle times and comparing that to the potential cycle times of an automated system. If you need to produce X number of parts per week, for example, and an automated system can produce those parts in 1/4 the time it takes a human operator, you’ve just increased your productivity by 75 percent. Given that approximately 70 percent of a welding operation’s costs are for labor, the chart below shows the labor saving potential of an automated welding system.

Overwelding is a common and costly occurrence in semi-automatic welding. A weld bead that is 1/8-in. larger than necessary can double your filler metal costs. An automated system can reduce your filler metal costs by only putting down as much material as necessary.

Automated systems also use bulk filler metal drums, which can further reduce your filler metal costs by requiring fewer changeovers and yielding bulk purchasing discounts. Using bulk tanks for your shielding gas, another highly recommended step in optimizing your automation capabilities, will further increase your return on investment.

3. Whether to Automate
Automating a welding cell won’t be the right course of action for everyone, but the capabilities of automated systems and their increasing affordability is making it a wise choice for many companies.

You must be able to provide the robot with a consistent supply of material and ensure that the parts being welded do not pile up in another part of the plant. If your robot only serves to move the production bottleneck from the welding cell to the painting booth, for example, then you have not increased your productivity.

Repeatability and measurability is a precursor to automation. If you don’t have a blueprint (preferably an electronic blueprint), you likely won’t be able to automate the welding for that part. You should also have a thorough understanding of your existing productivity from which to measure the improvements of the automated system. Further, parts should have large batch runs (although there are some exceptions to this rule), tolerances within thousandths of an inch, and configurations that allow access from an automated gun.

Make sure you have the right workforce to automate your operations. An automated welding system requires a trained operator to make sure it is running properly. Because it takes longer to become a skilled welder than it does to learn how to operate an automated welding system, it usually makes sense to train a welder to operate the automated system rather than trying to train a tech-savvy employee in proper weld quality identification and troubleshooting.

Automated systems generally require three-phase 480v electrical power, and only reach their full potential with the use of a bulk gas/manifold system, so these factors should also be considered in determining whether or not to make the leap into automation.

4. Your Automation Options
There are two basic types of automated welding systems, robotic and fixed. A robotic system is what most people think of when they think of automated welding. It uses a robotic arm that can move along several axes and a positioner that moves the part to be welded. Robotic systems are more expensive and more complicated than fixed automation systems, but you can reprogram them to accommodate different product lines if your business changes. This makes robots especially attractive if you have a small, growing fabrication shop.

In a fixed automation system, either the gun or the part is fixed in place, making the system less flexible in accommodating changes in product configuration and design. A product that requires only straight or curved welds along a single plane is usually a good candidate for a fixed automation system.

5. Automation Componentry
Planning a successful automation effort involves carefully choosing the equipment that will make up the system, including: the positioner, the tooling, the welding power source, the robot, the gun, the welding wire and the peripherals.

The positioner is responsible for, as its name implies, turning, rotating or otherwise moving the part into an optimal position to be welded. In many cases, this involves moving the part so that the system can weld in a flat position for optimal deposition efficiency.

The tooling holds the material in place to be welded and is one of the most critical components of an automated welding system. Because the gun moves along the exact same path each cycle, if the weld joint is out of place by as little as a few thousandths of an inch, the resulting part could end up in the rework or scrap bins. Simply designing the tooling correctly at the beginning isn’t enough, however. The tooling is subject to mechanical wear, heat distortion and other factors that could cause weld defects, so a trained operator must ensure the tooling continually maintains acceptable tolerances.

Power sources, especially those designed specifically for automated welding, can monitor and respond to the arc conditions within milliseconds, making it possible to reduce heat input to the materials, increase travel speeds, reduce spatter, bridge gaps and work with a wide variety of metals. Choose a power source that offers these benefits.

Selecting the right gun and welding wire can also have a significant bearing on the productivity and profitability of your operation, and should be chosen based on how they perform in conjunction with the rest of the system’s components and parts. Subjected to intense heat, spatter and other elements, the gun must be highly durable in order to avoid maintenance downtime. The gun should also be easily serviceable in order to minimize any downtime for spatter removal, contact tip changeover and other routine maintenance.

Finally, robotic peripherals, such as nozzle reamers, anti-spatter applicators and wire cutters should also be factored into your automation effort. These devices can improve uptime and welding performance.

6. Planning for the Future
Predicting your company’s automated welding needs in the years ahead will help determine the type of system you need. If you have a part that easily lends itself to a fixed automation system, for example, but you aren’t confident that you will be making that part three years from now, a robotic system might be the better choice. It can be reprogrammed and retooled to accommodate your needs in the future.

7. Throughout the Journey
Your automation partner, whether it’s your welding supplies distributor, a robotic systems integrator, an equipment manufacturer or an independent consultant, should be available with support and service throughout the transition to an automated welding system, not just until you install the robot. Further, most reputable robot manufacturers provide at least a week-long training course, as well as 24-hour support hotlines and field service technicians who can make on-site repairs and/or consultations.

Final Thoughts
The popularity of automated welding operations is growing by leaps and bounds thanks to their welding capabilities and return on investment. If you have a repeatable part, efficient material flow and a desire to increase your company’s productivity, you should at least be looking into automation. You should also assume that your competition is as well.

The first step toward determining if automation that is right for you will be to contact a trusted expert who can conduct an on-site analysis of your specific circumstances, recommend the appropriate equipment and configurations, and calculate the payback you can expect. 

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