From Technology to Technical Support: Welding in Today’s Automotive Industry

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A large part of maintaining productivity in an automotive application is ensuring high levels of uptime in the robotic welding operations and maximizing net throughput. It is equally important to find ways to minimize errors and obtain predictive weld data that helps anticipate problems in the operation.

Worldwide, companies serving the automotive industry have faced a unique set of challenges in the last several years, including changes in material types, a lack of skilled labor and initiatives by OEMs to decrease the weight of vehicles. Still, as the economy continues to rebound, each must find ways to maintain their productivity and profitability — often with fewer employees than before the recent recession.

A large part of maintaining that productivity is to ensure high levels of uptime in the robotic welding operations in order to maximize net throughput. It is equally important to find ways to minimize errors and obtain predictive weld data to help anticipate problems in the operation. Conventional issues like spatter, burn-through and poor part fit-up often hinder these attempts, as can the need to manage large amounts of inventory and contend with downtime to service welding equipment. That’s why it’s so important, too, for companies to find equipment that minimizes the total cost of ownership.

Unfortunately, there is no single answer to these challenges. There are, however, some considerations that may help reduce automotive suppliers’ pains and assist in other interrelated parts of the process.

Best practice meetings: When possible, suppliers in the automotive industry should work with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and vendors or welding distributors who can engage regularly in best practice meetings. These meetings can occur by conference call, webinar or in person, and can help determine what practices in the welding operation are working most effectively and what areas need improvement. “Open issues” can be prioritized in order to determine time-phased solutions.

These meetings can be especially helpful to companies with multiple locations (even globally), since they help identify opportunities for changes that could positively affect other facilities. They are also an excellent platform for brainstorming error-proofing ideas and serve to open communication among the parties involved in the success of a company’s welding operation. Ultimately, the goal is to spread an assessment of the operation to a broader peer group, extending the company’s core competencies to gain solutions from others’ input.

Streamline vendors: Automotive suppliers, particularly those with multiple locations, may want to consider purchasing their robotic gas metal arc welding (GMAW) guns, peripherals, consumables and other welding supplies from a single-source vendor via a welding distributor. Having multiple vendors may appear to provide cost savings on the surface; however, a per-item approach can actually increase the total spend.

Instead, by single sourcing a product line, a company is better poised to maximize their purchasing power with one vendor and gain loyalty discounts. The vendor may also be more inclined to aid in new efficiencies and groundbreaking technologies. Plus, a trusted single-source vendor can often help automotive suppliers assess their total weld spend, streamline inventory and reduce costly paperwork. The goal is to work with a vendor who can “own the arc,” providing assistance throughout the whole welding operation by assessing predictive data and offering suggestions for ongoing improvements.

“Co-opetition”: If you already work with several welding vendors, co-opetition is your next best option to maintaining an effective welding operation and in some cases can occur as part of best practice meetings. This term refers, in short, to cooperation that occurs between the various equipment manufacturers who are building the end user’s welding solution. Sometimes these companies have competitive product overlap. For example, the manufacturer of the robotic GMAW gun or welding wire may be in direct competition with the company whose power sources are in an automotive supplier’s weld cell. Even so, finding equipment manufacturers who are willing to work together to address problems in the welding operation is key to resolving issues when they arise.

A problem with the contact tip, for example, is usually a barometer of other things happening in the process. In short, it is very often a symptom of a problem, as opposed to the root cause. Having partners who are willing to put aside competitive differences for the good of resolving problems like these is important to gaining good welding performance. If this co-opetition is not feasible, companies may want to consider moving to a single-source vendor.

Equipment standardization: Recent increases in demand for production have caused some automotive suppliers, especially those in North America, to make capital investments that they previously postponed during the recession. When possible, standardizing on a single brand and style of welding power source, robotic controller, and GMAW gun and consumables during this investment can streamline inventory and maintenance procedures, thereby lowering management costs. It can also help companies avoid long lead times associated with specialty products and improve access to spare parts.    

For companies in an organic growth mode with new programs and/or greenfield operations, this standardization can help in long-term equipment re-deployment to other facilities, as well as streamline the learning curve among employees, and improve adoption rates and costs.

For companies that are in acquisition mode, however, this standardization may not be feasible. Instead, these suppliers should, at a minimum, consider standardizing on a single brand and style of robotic GMAW guns and consumables to minimize inventory. Doing so can also reduce the risk of improper consumable installation, which often leads to unscheduled downtime to rectify.

Appropriate welding technology: Many automotive suppliers rely on tandem- welding operations as a means to generate greater productivity. Companies can use this process for line production in the cells housing the majority of the welds. The benefit is that these operations require less floor space and can simultaneously improve throughput.

Advancements in single arc pulsed technology have also proven very efficient in providing faster travel speeds and minimizing spatter. This single arc technology, which effectively lowers the average amperage level during welding (by regularly switching the current between high peak amperages and low background amperages), is also quite easy to operate. Given the reduction in workforce in the automotive industry, combined with an overall shortage of skilled labor, this less complex (but highly efficient) technology has already proven beneficial for many automotive suppliers.

Companies should work with an appropriate welding distributor or robotic integrator to assess the individual application in order to determine the most appropriate welding technology.

Error-proofing: In addition to standardizing equipment when possible, using welding products that minimize the opportunity for human errors is an important part of keeping the welding process flowing. For example, nozzle detection can eliminate the potential of excessive rework or scrap.  Avoiding errors in equipment installation is also critical, as missing or incorrectly installed components on the front end of a robotic GMAW gun can cause it to become electrically alive, leading to premature failure and poor welding performance.

Preventive maintenance: Even though preventive maintenance or PM may have become a commonplace buzzword in recent years, the fundamentals are still critical to providing good welding performance and reducing unscheduled downtime in the automotive industry. Companies should take care to inspect all connections in the ground cables, feeding assembly, wire feeder, GMAW gun and consumables on a regularly scheduled basis. Replacing worn components during scheduled downtime (at the beginning of a shift, for example) can help prevent problems during production. On some welding robots, “predictive maintenance” technology is available to send alerts when consumables need to be changed.

Built-in buffers: As is typical in automotive “just-in-time” applications, suppliers want to reduce work in progress (WIP) — maintaining only strategically determined micro-inventories — and keep parts flowing (Takt time). To continue that workflow but still allow for any instances of stoppage in a robotic welding cell, suppliers may consider building a buffer into production. For example, if a company has a production line of 40 welding robots, breaking that line into fifths (five sections of eight robots), allows them to address any instances of failure while causing a stoppage of only eight robots instead of shutting down production on all 40. That buffer can mean a significant difference in terms of lost production and money.

And while no single one of these considerations can ensure the levels of productivity and profitability to which automotive suppliers strive as production demands increase, they can be a step in the right direction. Automotive suppliers should consider working with a trusted welding equipment manufacturer and vendor to discuss a plan for assessing their robotic welding operation and identifying opportunities for improvement.