The most important part of any fabricating operation is the welding plan, and the first step in all good welding plans is positioning. In part one of our welding automation series, Growing Your Fabricating Operation with Pemamek Positioners, we walked through how to use the positioning as the launching point when starting down the path of welding automation.
Automated positioners range from simple devices controlled with a pedal tap to fully automated systems like the Skymaster Pro controlled through software developed specifically for welding operations. For many, automating positioning is the beginning, middle and end of the automation journey. For those that see it as a launching point, the next step can include everything from column and booms, and rollerbeds to fully programmable robotic welders and software that allows for offline programming and full system integration and control.
The path to an automated welding cell starts with a series of discussions between management, welders, and Pemamek engineers. Every aspect of the process will be reviewed: who will be operating the cell, what customers are affected, shop floor size, etc. Because Pemamek believes a company’s seasoned welders are also the best welding cell operators, they are intimately involved in the planning and implementation process. Ultimately, this means the new cell is productive more quickly, as adoption time is significantly shorter.
It’s easy to get caught up in the possibilities of a fully automated welding shop floor, however, most companies start with a modular single welding station that can be expanded in the future if necessary. But, how do you know if/when it is necessary to expand? Before investing in welding automation any money or time, it’s important to take several factors into account.
This is the first and most important factor to look at when considering taking the leap into automation. How flexible does the cell need to be to meet needs and expectations? Does the cell need to accommodate high-volume/low-mix production or the opposite? The discussion around these questions should take significant time so everyone involved can fully unpack what the automation cell will (and will not) accomplish.
2. Product mix
This factor goes hand in hand with flexibility. There may be 30 different products in the hopper, but no cell can accommodate all of them. Working with welders/cell operators and automation partners, a decision needs to be made about what mix of products best fulfill the goals for the cell.
3. Growth potential
For those companies looking to automation to help enter new markets, there are a few key questions to ask: Will the cell help grow into new products and customers? Will it help customers grow their own product lines? Will it accommodate shifts in current customer demands? Speaking of shifts, will the cell help compensate for market shifts? And can it revert back if the market pivots again? Adept automation partners will be able to identify equipment and configurations that satisfy these questions.
With everyone’s input on the table, an automation vision starts to come to life. It is important to note that the welding automation expert should be acting as a partner rather than a supplier. They should be asking hard questions as the process moves from the concept phase to the design phase, and they should be thoroughly answering hard questions. Entering the design phase is where the rubber meets the road. All parties need to remain flexible as the realities of equipment limitations and availability can come into play. And, of course, there are a few more things to consider.
4. Cell design
It is very important that cell design is a three-way collaboration between management, welders/cell operators, and the automation partner. Product mix, ideas, facility layout, and budget should all be considered. Organizations should not be afraid to pressure automation partners to go back to the drawing board if initial concepts do not meet needs and expectations. They should be configuring cells to meet stated needs, not reconfiguring needs to meet capabilities.
5. Mechanization or robotics?
Product mix is a very important factor here. Low volume/high mix production will need different equipment than high volume/low mix. A specialized configuration of mechanical assistance from columns and booms, and positioners is usually implemented for high volume/low mix situations. For companies with a low volume/high mix of products, or for those situations where repeatable precision is essential, robotics are a must have.
6. Is it time for a Flexible Manufacturing System (FMS)?
Fully automated FMS cells were once reserved for very large facilities cranking out thousands of parts for big business. However, as technologies advance, the cost and footprint barriers associated with full automation have diminished, making it possible for shops of nearly any size to add an FMS. While many fabricators may balk at the idea of installing a full FMS, they need to go back to the welding plan that started their automation journey in the first place. The best way to execute the welding plan may be to implement an FMS. In the last blog in this series, we’ll take a deeper look at FMS systems and the benefits they can offer to even the smallest shops.
The bottom line is, companies considering welding automation should never lose sight of the welding plan. It is the beginning, middle, and end to implementing an effective and affordable automation solution.
About the writer:
Michael Bell is the Director of Sales, Pemamek North America.