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Welding Automation Addresses Skills Shortage

Michael Bell
By Michael Bell Director of Sales, Pemamek North America

Like just about every other manufacturing operation, welding has made the leap into the 21st century with automation, agile manufacturing processes, and offline programming. While there is a natural hesitation among manufacturers to fully automate this function, the pressure is on to do so, with the main driver being the age of the skilled welders they currently employ.

According to the American Welding Society, the average age of a skilled welder in the U.S. is 57. If that’s the average age, think of how many have already retired and the concerning lack of younger people learning the trade. Many commendable national and local efforts are underway to attract people to welding, but it just may not happen quickly enough for manufacturers who absolutely need to weld parts now, even as they throw retirement parties with smiles and tears.

Robotic welders are an obvious solution to help fill this gap while companies digitally capture the tribal knowledge that their current welding masters possess. The masters, then, move into more of a necessary mentoring role as the automation methodologies integrate into the production process. Further, the new, young welders that do get hired will be enamored with the robotics and the opportunity to do what their brains seem to be evolving to do—interact with the computer and program the equipment. That being said, the welding masters quickly grasp offline software, too, such as that developed by Pemamek. It was designed for the legacy welder and uses a teaching/prompting approach to write programming routines.

Robotic Welding for Many Kinds of Parts

Robotic welders have come a long way in the last decade. They are no longer efficient just for long, repetitive production runs, which is still the widely-held myth that’s out there. The newest technology features hardware and software systems designed to weld parts weighing up to multiple tons and filling a quarter acre in a building or production yard. Those are not the kinds of parts that people make 20,000 pieces of for inventory. At the other end of the spectrum, a manufacturer might make much smaller parts than that while following lean production techniques in which all parts are made to order, as prompted by an ERP system. “Smart” robotic welders can fit in that lean, agile scenario very efficiently now. Essentially, whatever the scope in welding requirements, there are solutions available, and they are worth a fresh consideration without misperceptions from the past.

Balancing the Costs of Automation

Other concerns surrounding the decision to shift to welding automation include the capital expense and the time needed to learn and operate the technology. Money and onboarding time must be considered when making a purchase and blending the new method into a process. A professional technology partner will make this aspect as streamlined, organized, and non-disruptive as possible. Methodically calculating the ROI is a necessary first step, along with a practical installation plan. It may be surprising to learn that in our company’s experience, the typical ROI for significant robotic welding systems is 18–24 months, less if it’s a simpler setup. And training takes about two weeks from the time the install is done to when weld production is in full swing.

Automating welding operations is a trend to explore now. Equipment and software have evolved. The robots are “smart” and flexible, capable of being as efficient with one-off parts as they are with longer production runs of different sized workpieces. The technology can improve weld deposition and part quality; increase arc-on time in a consistent, methodical manner; and reduce the risk of worker injuries.

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