Processed Metal Innovators LLC (PMI), Bloomer, Wis., is a metal fabricator that produces hundreds of different stamped and welded metal parts for heavy equipment, automobiles, appliances, and more. Part sizes range from a few inches to 10' (3.048 m), and from thin-gauge material to 3/4" (19.05 mm) and heavier.
PMI started with six employees in the early 1990s. It moved to its current location in 1998 and has grown to employ well over 100 employees. The facility began with about 60,000 ft2 (5,574 m2) and has since expanded to more than 130,000 ft2 (12,077 m2).
With few available certified welders and traditional robotic welders unable to handle small runs, PMI turned to the newly released Universal Robots cobot-powered BotX Welder to increase productivity and profitability.
Erik Larson, vice president of operations at PMI, was tired of turning business away due to labor shortages. “There’s been a lot of business that’s come knocking on our door,” he said, “and a lot of it in the past we’ve had to no-bid because it required welding. We only have about seven welders and for some of these jobs we needed nine or ten welders. Right now, we have enough quotes out there that we would have to have hired 30 more welders.” With the labor shortage in Wisconsin before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) making it tough to hire certified welders and with traditional robotic welders not feasible for high-mix/low-volume production, Larson needed another option.
The company had already turned to collaborative robots from Universal Robots (UR), Odense, Denmark and Boston, to tend two mechanical presses in the past.
The cobots pick parts from a conveyor, place them in presses for stamping, and remove the parts to another conveyor. The collaborative robots on the presses automatically pause when someone enters the work cell, proving to be safe and cost-effective and allowing workers to move into higher-value roles.
The cobots were implemented by Hirebotics, a UR Certified Systems Integrator that provides cloud-connected robots that are billed hourly for the time they work, eliminating capital outlays and simplifying applications. That success led PMI to find applications to automate in order to keep growing. When PMI heard about Hirebotics’ new BotX welder, the pieces clicked into place.
“We selected the BotX robots due to the fact that they are collaborative robots and you don’t need a large guarding system around them. They’re very small, easy to use, and very easy to program. It’s a win-win package—it’s the future for doing small welds,” said Larson.
The BotX welder is designed for easy implementation and programming, and combines extensive welding expertise and two years of development collaboration with Red-D-Arc, Airgas, and Air Liquide. Rob Goldiez, co-founder and CEO of Hirebotics, said, “Universal Robots is a great choice for this platform to be built around for several reasons: one is that it’s an extremely open platform. It allows us to control how that robot performs from the cloud, and the new e-Series has unique capabilities in its built-in force torque sensor, which we take advantage of to provide a better user experience for the end customer.”
Customers can teach BotX the required welds via the Hirebotics app on a smartphone or tablet using welding libraries developed for BotX.
“The Hirebotics team came in, they unloaded the BotX off their rental truck, and within two hours they had it set up. Within half an hour, I was running it and programming it and doing it all by myself,” said Shaun Bruce, PMI’s robotics and automation area lead, emphasizing the Hirebotics app. “I’m not a certified welder, but I’m able to easily just load a program, and I’ve got my tables mapped out in pictures, so I know where to put my tooling and my jig system, and I’m able to swap between parts within a matter of 15 minutes,” he said.
A key concept of the HireBotics BotX robot system is that there’s no capital investment up front. Hirebotics delivers and sets up the system and all the customer has to supply is gas and standard power. After a risk assessment, no special guarding is required, and the company pays an hourly rate just for the time the robot is actually welding. “Compared to what an employee would get for their hourly wage, plus all their overhead costs, you’re probably saving half of what you would pay a normal welder,” said Larson.
The new welding robot system has already had an impact on the company’s ability to take on new jobs, despite the acute shortage of welders, Larson explained. “With the new BotX system, we can go out there and quote work we haven’t been able to quote before, because we know by the time we accept the PO, we can get a robot in here and be ready to weld the parts before we even get the first order in the door.”
Another significant benefit is PMI’s ability to get the BotX welds certified for customers who require this. “This now means we do not need to use certified welders to oversee the operation. As long as the cobot welder’s program is certified, any operator can tend the cobot welder. This really unlocks a lot of new resources for us,” said Larson.
That’s possible because the robot and programmer are certified by welding inspectors, applying the same testing a human welder goes through for certification, using weld samples and destructive tests to certify the weld.
Said Larson, “With the new BotX system, we can bring in one robot and run it for three shifts and not have to hire three welders, so if we needed 30 welders, we could have 10 robots running. We do have to hire employees to run the robots, but now they don’t have to be skilled welders. It really frees up a lot of resources for us.”
PMI also has traditional welding robots in house, but they require tooling fixtures that can take up to 16 weeks to build. Especially for small-run parts, PMI found that the fixtures weren’t cost-effective. PMI’s Larson explained the difference with the collaborative BotX system.
“The tables that the BotX robot comes with include clamping systems and everything you need to be able to just clamp your part on the table and shoot some pictures of it. You have a little diagram of it and every time you go to put that program back in, you can set your part up the same as you did before, so it doesn’t take a large fixture or an expensive fixture to do it. There’s no capital investment in it, and it’s just plug-and-play.”
In addition, downtime on traditional robots can take up to two weeks to get a service technician to address the problem. In comparison, the HireBotics BotX system includes a 24-hour service option that responds with the touch of a button in the Hirebotics app. Said Larson, “You go on your phone, you click the app, and they will reply.” His colleague, Shaun Bruce, added, “If I have any kinds of issues, I can message Hirebotics on this app and instantly get a reply back. It’s not hours of waiting, days of waiting; it’s seconds sometimes and for troubleshooting real-time, the problem is resolved within minutes.”
As in any weld shop, profit margin on the larger weldments is significantly bigger than on small welds. “We can now reallocate our existing manual welders to handle the larger parts, while we’re still able to get the little parts done,” said Larson. “So we’re not replacing anybody in our company with robots; we’re just moving people around to where they add most value.”
Larson has also found that the robots appeal to younger workers, who are often hard to hire and retain in manufacturing jobs. He said, “We found out when we put these robots in and were looking for a person to be the robotic and technology lead, we had a lot of younger employees all interested in applying for that position. They like their phones and they like computers. It’s a big hit for the younger generation who are into technology and want to be able to work with and program robots.”
While young people may gravitate towards using collaborative robots for welding, using a cobot in the fabrication industry took some convincing, explained Hirebotics’ Rob Goldiez. “Most people who have been around the industry for a long time believe welding—which is a heavy-duty task—is best suited for traditional robots. They don’t think that a collaborative robot is up to the task. One of the first things we had to do was prove to our partners at Airgas and Air Liquide that a collaborative robot can weld effectively.”
“That was proven resoundingly well, and it’s not just the motion of laying down a weld,” Goldiez continued. “This is the robot laying down a weld and then cutting it and analyzing it and X-raying it to make sure that it meets the standards that they would expect and want to present to their customer base.”
Once convinced, these expert partners played important roles in the BotX development and implementation. “The teams at Air Liquide, Airgas, and Red-D-Arc had deep, deep welding expertise that’s being used to build a welding library delivered through the cloud to the robots,” said Goldiez. “These are welding libraries that are developed in an R&D center that Air Liquide has with internationally renowned welding experts.”
Hirebotics is also able to rapidly incorporate customer feedback. While early versions provided basic welds such as straight lines, stitch welds, and tack welds, user feedback from early customers such as PMI prompted Hirebotics to rapidly develop more sophisticated processes, including multi-segment and radial welds.
That expertise now yields concrete results, including consistency that even manual welders can’t meet. Said PMI’s Larson, “With the BotX robot system, the quality of the welds is great because if you program a weld to be in that specific spot, the weld’s going to be in that specific spot. If you program it to be 2" (50.8 mm) on that seam, no matter who runs that program or who sets the part up, it’s going to be every 2" on that seam.” That’s not necessarily the case with human welders, added Larson. “You go back to the traditional hand welder, and they’re not sure how much 2" is—it might be 1.25" (31.75 mm), it might be 1.5" (38.1 mm), it might be a 2" gap, or a 2.5" (63.5-mm) gap. So it really takes the guesswork out of making sure you lay the weld down in the right spot.”