Small- to medium-size manufacturers looking to optimize operations should consider what robotic automation can do for their processes. From greater flexibility, safety and productivity to substantial cost and labor savings, a number of transformational benefits can be achieved in a relatively short payback period. Fabricators still unsure whether high-performance robots will be advantageous to their bottom line should especially consider the viability of small welding workcells on their operations. That said, these efficiency workcells can:
Provide Better Floorspace Utilization
Although traditional and customized cells usually require a larger area, robot suppliers and integrators prioritize offering highly capable robotic systems that optimize floorspace usage. Whether a fab shop faces space limitations or a high volume automotive tier company evaluates production efficiency based on the square footage (or square inches) of the factory floor, there are multiple equipment options to choose from that can effectively perform demanding tasks while saving space.
This is particularly beneficial for the high-mix fabrication of small to medium-size parts. These compact systems, like the ArcWorld® HS that require as little as 1.4 square meters (15 sq ft) of floorspace, are equipped with a high-speed robot and an integrated weld package, helping to supplement manual welding, as needed. Ideal for pre-assembly before fabrication in larger robotic workcells, these solutions are adept at safe, easy part loading and unloading, and can facilitate quick changeover.
Lower Cost of Entry and Provide Quick Payback
Modern industry has introduced a variety of beneficial technologies to facilitate the creation and production of more cost-effective yet highly capable robots and their accompanying tools. As a result, the initial financial investment required is generally lower than anticipated, leading to increased potential for financial gain and faster return on investment (ROI) within a targeted payback period. Due to the greater efficiency and precision robots can bring, most manufacturers can recoup their capital investment within a span of 18 months. This, along with robotic automation’s ability to boost an entire team’s productivity by approximately 30%1, helps companies attain the extra capacity needed to reach corporate and financial objectives.
To right-size this benefit, there are multiple workcells to choose from with diverse offerings. These options range from basic features, such as hinged doors or manual tooling that require more manual labor, to highly automated systems that enhance throughout for higher volume runs. Regardless, fabricators should be assured that there is a suitable configuration available to help meet their specifications. Although smaller pre-engineered cells may operate slightly slower than larger workcells (due to factors like manual doors), the advantages offered by automation to human welders are significant enough to maximize production for tangible outcomes.
This principle also applies to collaborative welding systems, like the ArcWorld HC. With utilization on the rise, human-collaborative robot solutions can be equipped with necessary safety features like flash protection, fume mitigation and a smart Functional Safety Unit (FSU). This enables flexible and secure robotic automation at an affordable rate, ensuring a fast payback period and maximum return on investment (ROI).
Complement Existing Workcells
Manufacturers familiar with a fully manual process may question if introducing robotic automation can truly make a difference to their current workflow, and ultimately, their bottom line. However, as mentioned, the successful implementation of high-performance robots has the potential to streamline the flow of parts, along with overall productivity, for a positive return on investment.
Job shops and production facilities that already have some level of robotic automation may hesitate to incorporate more robots. However, it is important to consider that in these cases, subassemblies are likely being hand-welded, which can lead to quality issues and slower throughput compared to competitors. By adding one robot arm to complement an existing workcell or by introducing a separate smaller system, the efficiency of floorspace can be maximized, leading to improvements in quality and increased output.
Similarly, the use of pendant applications, such as the Universal Weldcom Interface (UWI), are assisting programmers by providing easy control of any welding process or parameter. Advanced capabilities from the welding power supply can be fully utilized, allowing convenient adjustments to factors such as voltage, amperage, and wire feed speed. A huge asset of small welding workcells, this functionality enables the utmost weld quality and product throughput.
Accommodate Tight Schedules
Manufacturers pressed for time and worried about tight delivery schedules may refrain from using robotic automation entirely, especially if there is concern that implementation could cause too much production downtime. However, suppliers and integrators are dedicated to making this transition as smooth and effortless as possible, intentionally designing robots and workcells to facilitate swift integration with minimal disruption.
For instance, many newer robots are equipped with a single power and control cable, which reduces the time required for wiring and enhances overall work efficiency. Additionally, various weld cells have been developed to maximize overall productivity, featuring a shared base for the robot and positioners (or tables) to enable rapid setup and relocation. In terms of procurement, smaller systems typically have shorter delivery times compared to larger workcells. Therefore, decision makers who are hesitant due to rumors of extended lead times should find encouragement and seriously consider making the leap towards implementing robots.
Enhance Safety Compliance
Experienced robot suppliers and integrators possess the expertise to assist manufacturers in conducting a comprehensive risk assessment. This involves providing a detailed analysis of how the entire robotic system will function on the shop floor and interact with human workers. From end-of-arm tooling to safety guarding and more, this process takes everything into consideration. Overall, the implementation of a robotic system significantly diminishes the likelihood of welding-related harm, such as arc flash, fume inhalation, and typical workplace injuries like tripping or being caught on stray components.
Historically, larger automation lines have been perceived by many as safety hazards. However, thanks to advancements in tools and sensor technology, the risks have significantly diminished. Likewise, the use of compact welding systems further mitigates this danger – as self-contained safety measures help to facilitate compliance with local regulations.
Designed to comply with risk assessment standards, such as ANSI/RIA R15.06-2012 and other relevant ISO and CSA standards, workcells like the ArcWorld RS come safeguarded, and the robot controller’s FSU uses “stand still” monitoring for robot safety signals. Plus, all doors are safety monitored. These systems frequently offer overhead LED lighting, sheet metal enclosures, and light-reducing polycarbonate for arc and spatter protection; as well as a built-in extraction hood for fume filtration, along with a four-button operator panel featuring E-stop for the utmost safety.
A Viable Path to Production
The benefits of smaller welding workcells are clear, making it crucial for manufacturers to carefully consider their usage. Complementing manual welding, reducing safety hazards and optimizing production efficiency, these systems can be invaluable. Other options like the ArcWorld LC (Lite Cell), ArcWorld 50 or the ArcWorld 200/500 may be advantageous as well, depending on production volume and part size.
To ensure a seamless integration process, it is essential for decision makers to formulate a well-thought-out plan, where each phase strictly adheres to pertinent safety regulations and accounts for necessary employee training. Ultimately, companies who take the robot leap and diligently follow strategic steps – with the help of an experienced robot supplier or integrator – will soon discover the viable path to productivity that space-saving and efficient welding workcells have to offer.
1 Essential Robotics in Workplace Statistics in 2023, Global Commerce Media, 2023
Josh Leath is a Senior Product Manager