Thoughts for Improving Welding Operations in Today’s Automotive Industry
Worldwide, companies serving the automotive industry have faced a unique set of challenges in the last several years. Still, as the economy begins 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. Conventional problems like spatter, burn-through and poor part fit-up often hinder such attempts, as do issues like managing large amounts of inventory and contending with downtime to service welding equipment. Unfortunately, there is no single answer to these challenges. There are, however, some considerations that may help reduce suppliers’ pains and assist in other interrelated parts of the process.
The recent increase in demand for production is causing 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. For companies in 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 manpower learning requirements. 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 can lead to unscheduled downtime to rectify.
Single Arc Pulsed Technology
Many automotive suppliers rely on tandem welding processes as a means to generate greater productivity. In recent years, however, advancements in single arc pulsed technology have proven very efficient in providing faster travel speeds and minimizing spatter. This 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 welders, this less complex (but highly efficient) technology has already proven beneficial for many automotive suppliers.
Automotive suppliers, particularly those with multiple locations, may want to consider purchasing their robotic GMAW guns, peripherals and consumables from a single source vendor or welding distributor. Having multiple vendors may appear to provide cost savings up front; 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 technologies. Plus, a trusted single source vendor can often help automotive suppliers assess their total consumable and robotic GMAW gun usage, streamline inventory and reduce costly paperwork at the same time.
In addition to standardizing equipment when possible, using welding products that minimize the opportunity for errors is an important part of keeping the welding process flowing and reducing operator error. For example, nozzle detection (i.e. that doesn’t increase cycle time) 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 MIG gun can cause them to become electrically alive, causing premature failure and poor welding performance.
Best Practice Meetings
When possible, suppliers in the automotive industry should work with equipment manufacturers and vendors or welding distributors who can engage regularly in best practice meetings. These meetings can occur by conference call 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 amongst a group for time-phased solutions. These meetings can especially help companies with multiple locations, even globally, to 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.
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 always take care to inspect connections in the GMAW gun, wire feeder, consumable and ground cables on a regular basis. Replacing worn components during scheduled downtime (at the beginning of a shift, for example) can help prevent problems during production. As of yet, “predictive maintenance” —– technology that alerts when consumables need to be changed – is not available. In the meantime, however, companies can instead track contact tip usage to gain an understanding of how often these components need to be replaced. Non-subjective analytical processes should be used to benchmark component longevity and performance.
During Best Practice meetings, “Coopetition” can be an integral part of maintaining an effective welding operation for the greater good of the customer. This term refers, in short, to cooperation that occurs between competitive equipment manufacturers. The reality of any welding operation is that 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.
As is typical in automotive “just-in-time” applications, suppliers want to reduce instances of work-in-progress (WIP) and keep parts flowing (Takt time). To continue that work flow 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 consumable 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.