Optimizing the Robotic Welding Process with the Right GMAW Gun

As companies seek out means to increase productivity and improve quality, the investment in welding automation continues to grow across the fabrication and manufacturing industries. Along with providing greater efficiencies, robotic welding systems allow companies to streamline their operations to gain cost savings and to position themselves favorably among the competition. 

Selecting the right robot and power source, and ensuring that the parts to be welded lend themselves to automation — namely that they are repeatable and offer joint accessibility — are all vital to success. There are also steps that companies can take to optimize the robotic welding process by way of the robotic gas metal arc welding (GMAW) gun. From making the proper selection for the application to implementing appropriate preventive maintenance and more, this component can help support greater arc-on time, reduce costs and help companies realize the benefits of welding automation. 

Making the right choice

Image of TOUGH GUN CA3 with a straight neck
In most applications, air-cooled GMAW guns provide the necessary cooling capacity to protect against premature failure and offer good performance.

Determining the right robotic GMAW gun depends on the application, including the type and thickness of material being welded, the length of the weld and the amperage required. The type of robotic welding system also factors into the decision, as through-arm robots are becoming more prevalent in the industry and replacing many conventional robots due to their ability to reduce cable wear from routine torsion. In this case, a through-arm robotic GMAW gun, in which the cable assembly runs through the arm of the robot (as opposed to over it), is necessary. As with conventional GMAW guns, through-arm style guns are available in air- or water-cooled varieties. 

In most applications, air-cooled GMAW guns provide the necessary cooling capacity to protect against premature failure and offer good performance. These guns rely on both the copper in the unicable and the ambient air for cooling. In addition to working well on lower amperage applications, for welding materials up to 0.16-inch thick and for short, high-volume welds, air-cooled GMAW guns are also quite sturdy. 

In heavy equipment manufacturing and similar industries, water-cooled robotic GMAW guns are often chosen due to their ability to weld on thicker materials (over 1/4 inch) for longer periods of time. While more expensive up front and more to maintain, these guns offer high amperages (usually 300 to 600 amps) at 100 percent duty cycle, which makes them well suited for long weldments. These GMAW guns operate by circulating coolant from a radiator unit through the power cable via cooling hoses and through the gun and neck. This coolant returns to the radiator where it releases the heat that it absorbed during the welding process. Because of the water circuit, there is the potential for leaks so companies should take care to implement a preventive maintenance schedule to help protect against issues.  

In the event that a company welds materials of a variety of thicknesses at low and high amperages, a good choice for a GMAW gun is a hybrid variety featuring a durable air-cooled neck with external water lines. 

Choosing proper components 

The neck, power cable and other components chosen for a robotic GMAW gun can have a measurable impact on welding performance and productivity. The goal with each of these items is to keep them functioning correctly and prevent premature failure so that the robot can maintain the high levels of arc-on time it was designed to provide. 

It is important that the robotic GMAW gun is able to access the weld joint accurately and fully, and utilizing the proper neck style and length for the job is key. Typically, GMAW gun manufacturers offer necks in multiple angles ranging from 22 to 180 degrees, and in various lengths to accommodate most robotic welding applications. In some cases, however, it may be necessary to special-order a neck. Whichever the case, having a neck that can reach the weld joint appropriately can reduce weld defects by completing the weld properly the first time, and eliminate downtime for rework. 

The right power cable style and length on a robotic GMAW can also help companies achieve efficiencies in the robotic welding operation. In a through-arm robotic application, the selection is simpler, as the power cable is typically sold in set lengths to match a specific make and model of robot. Still, companies may want to consider additional options for these components, such as power cables with a rotating connection. This feature helps relieve stress on the cable and power pin, resulting in less kinking and a longer life. 

Image of TA3 on a Motoman robot
Through-arm robotic GMAW guns, in which the cable assembly runs through the arm of the robot (as opposed to over it), are becoming more prevalent in the industry due to their ability to reduce cable wear from routine torsion.

For conventional robots, selecting the correct length of power cable is important — too long of a cable can easily kink or whip around during the welding process, whereas too short of a cable can stretch and wear more quickly. Both can result in premature cable failure, and downtime and costs for cable replacement. When in doubt about the selection, contact a trusted robotic integrator, robotic GMAW gun manufacturer or welding distributor for assistance. 

Companies should also look for sturdy power cables that are able to withstand UV damage from the arc and resist wear, as well as those with quick-change features to further extend cable life, simplify changeover and prevent interruptions to the welding process. 

Using high-quality consumables — nozzles, contact tips and gas diffusers — is another way to improve the robotic welding operation and protect the robotic GMAW gun. For higher-amperage applications, companies may want to consider a chrome zirconium contact tip to withstand the higher heat levels. The connections between consumables should always be tight to prevent electrical resistance that could lead to failure and to gain good conductivity for a smooth and stable arc. When possible, adding a nozzle cleaning station or reamer to the robotic weld cell can further optimize the performance of the consumables and the robotic GMAW gun by ensuring that the nozzle is free of spatter and able to direct the shielding gas to the weld pool to protect the weld. It can also help minimize the risk of the consumables overheating. 

Maintaining tool center point

In certain instances, companies may reprogram the robot after a collision in order to re-establish tool center point (TCP) with a bent robotic GMAW gun neck. As an alternative, a neck checking fixture (or neck inspection fixture) can adjust the neck back to the correct TCP to help improve the performance of the gun and gain greater arc-on time. The neck checking fixture tests the neck profile to ensure that the contact tip will meet the TCP. If the tool point is off because of an impact or other problem, it readjusts the neck back to the correct position. This peripheral can also be used to inspect a new robotic GMAW gun neck prior to installation to ensure it is accurate. For companies that maintain a large number of robotic welding cells, a neck checking fixture can reduce downtime and costs when exchanging necks from one robotic GMAW gun to another — welding operators need only to remove the damaged or bent neck and replace it with a spare one that has been inspected already to get the robot back to welding immediately. The damaged neck can then be set aside for adjustments while the robot is already online. 

For newer robots with more sophisticated collision detection software, using a solid mount to protect the gun in the event of an impact can also help maintain a more accurate TCP than a clutch mount. Unlike a clutch mount that is designed to move, these durable, high-strength mounts offer greater repeatability for higher weld quality. They are also less expensive. 

Adding to welding performance

To help maintain accuracy, quality and speed in the robotic welding operation, additions to the robotic GMAW gun like air blast and wire brake features are beneficial.

An option for both air- and water-cooled robotic GMAW guns, the air blast feature forces high-pressure air through the front of the gun to help remove debris that could enter the weld pool and negatively affect weld quality. Welding operators can program the air blast feature to operate between weld cycles to reduce unnecessary downtime. 

Another option for robotic GMAW guns to help optimize welding performance is the addition of a wire brake feature. As its name implies, a wire brake prevents wire feeding when welding stops. The result is a consistent wire extension at the beginning of every weld, a factor that especially complements robots using touch-sensing software — the wire brake keeps the wire in position as the robot searches for the weld joint location. This optional robotic GMAW gun feature also keeps the wire from unspooling during arc starting and stops. 

Robotic GMAW gun maintenance

Preventive maintenance (PM) is critical for gaining optimal performance from a robotic GMAW gun, whether it is air- or water-cooled or a conventional or through-arm style. 

Recommend PM activities include:

  • Secure connections on a regular basis. Tighten front-end consumables and be certain that all seals are in good condition.
  • Remove spatter from the nozzle regularly, ideally applying anti-spatter to protect against buildup. 
  • Track the life span of the robotic GMAW gun liner and replace prior to failure. Trim replacement liners to the appropriate length using a liner gauge.
  • Make certain that the power pin is secure.
  • Check that welding cable leads are secured and look for signs of wear. Replace as necessary. 

The frequency of the PM schedule will depend on the size of the robotic welding operation and the application. Companies with large weldments on thick materials stand to have greater costs and downtime for rework should the gun fail and cause a quality issue. Maintaining the robotic GMAW gun more frequently is advised.