Collaborative robot (or cobot) welding technology is helping manufacturers survive -- and thrive -- in a tough labor market. The help couldn't have arrived at a better time: Finally, manufacturers of all sizes can invest in automation that improves quality, helps companies better serve their customers, and relieves pressure on human resources.
Reduced costs and a wider range of applications are making cobot welding available to more companies. Collaborative welding robots are safer, less expensive, and easier to use than traditional robotics, so companies that previously were excluded from using welding automation, are now able to cost-justify and use these tools.
It's a crucial development, because the American Welding Society predicts a shortage of 400,000 skilled welders by the year 2025. Our company has seen countless manufacturers in "production pain" -- struggling to keep up with demand because of the lack of skilled welders. And we heard it over and over at the recent American Welding Society FABTECH Exhibition in Chicago in September 2021.
Cobots can help. The workforce benefits are straightforward.
Cobot welding is also easier to teach and implement than traditional robotic welding; jobs that may not have been good candidates for traditional robotic welding can be set up and implemented quickly. Workers can operate right next to a cobot, because the cobots are inherently safe and will stop if they touch someone. This is different from traditional robotic welding systems that must be caged in large footprint, safe structures with safety interlocks to prevent worker injury when the machines are working in an automatic mode.
Besides boosting the productivity of companies and workers, we've seen examples where cobot welding is allowing workers to upskill and extend their careers. A worker manually grinding at a Connecticut bridge builder, was able to upskill to produce certified welds on bridge components. A 60-year-old manual welder in Denver, blind in one eye, who could no longer manually weld, was able to extend his career by using his knowledge to teach a cobot welder to weld parts.
Cobots are also helping extend and enhance careers. At Vectis Automation, we work with Corey Mays from CM Welding & Machine in Midland, Texas. He sent me this: "Many weldments that are just plain monotonous can actually be detrimental to a skilled welder's productivity and motivation. Competent fabricators want to be challenged and have to be challenged sometimes daily. That's what keeps them motivated to improve and sharpen their skills.
"We use our cobot for that exact reason. I refuse to burn out my fabricators on thousands of simple mundane welds that obviously have to be done while we still have more challenging assemblies to manufacture. I hated that when I was in their shoes and I won't put them in that position. Is a cobot a solve all or 100 percent replacement for a welder? Absolutely not and never will be. It can however make your current fabricators more productive and less likely to get burned out. It's also a great tool for entry-level personnel to get a look at the weld puddle being applied, basic manipulation, the effects of changes to essential variables, and what steps you take to approach different weld joints."
Three things to do to prepare:
First, make sure you feed the tool with good piece-parts. CNC cutting systems and CNC press brakes are producing better piece parts than ever before, and they greatly improve the likelihood of success.
Start with the "low-hanging fruit" of simple sub-assembly weldments.
Negotiate good terms! Explore rent, rent to own, and leasing financial alternatives.
Cobot welding upskills and invests in existing employees, improves product quality, and, as a result, business competitiveness, and arrives at a time when the industry is hungry for workforce solutions.
It's a win-win. Join us on the journey if you'd like.
Doug Rhoda is chairman of Vectis Automation.