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Too few humans aspire to welding
According to a State of the Welding Industry Report, welding is a critical enabling technology in 90 percent of the U.S. output of durable goods.
However, for nearly a decade now, welding has been turning up an excess of jobs together with a significant lack of qualified workers to fill them.
Considering the number of alarming headlines about robots stealing jobs, welding doesn?t appear to be one of them.
In fact, the report furthers that of the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) Codes for welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers through 2019 ?there is a need for 402,794 new and replacement workers, or 37.42% of the overall workforce.?
That need is primarily driven by the fact that the average age of welding professionals in the U.S. (total workforce of slightly over one million) is 56, and that by 2019 almost 40 percent will need to be replaced.?
Compounding the pending welder retirements, the report goes on to say that finding those future welders is not only a challenge today but getting worse all the time: “The ability of companies that are involved in the field of welding to find qualified workers regardless of the economy over the past decade has become more and more difficult.”
The American Welding Society reports that 40 percent of manufacturing companies declined new contracts due to an insufficient workforce.
Welding seems to be the kind of job where robots may be very much welcome — in spite of the headlines!
Robots to the rescue
Impervious to the tedium, danger and health hazards of a risky line of work, using welding robots offers an answer to valuable advances in speed, productivity and efficiency of the workplace, while also glimpsing at new modes of human-robot cooperation.
And forget about youthful recruits filling the void: lack of appropriate knowledge complicated by a lack of interest in the profession — too few students opt into welding programs — so as to insufficiently replace the ever-growing number of retirees.
With the mean annual wage for a welder hovering around $36K (only the top 10 percent get $50K-plus), while the cost of a robot welding cell starts at $100,000, the argument to replace retirees with robots is a compelling one.
Robot welding cells
While the welding industry struggles to attract human workers, robotic welding is experiencing a growth curve, and becoming a frontier of new-age, co-robot systems.
This year has been a turning point for the industry with the cost of robotic welding cells decreasing and Q1 sales up 46.2% from 2012.
As with most robotic applications of late, robotic welding is growing in popularity thanks to improving technology and better ROI for adopters, including a rising number of SMBs who can benefit from small runs of custom products, and the increased flexibility new robots provide.
“The robotics industry has latched onto that basic idea by marketing preconfigured and pre-engineered work cells for welding, dispensing, machine tending and other applications,” reported Assembly Magazine.
“The cells promise assemblers dramatic savings in cost and deployment time. As a result, the ready-to-go systems are popular with both small job shops and Tier 1 automotive suppliers,” it said.
“With a preconfigured work cell, all engineering needed to fabricate, assemble and integrate the system is completed before a manufacturer places an order, which significantly shortens delivery time,” the article said. “The cells use common components to reduce engineering and manufacturing costs.”
Accuracy helps cut consumable costs, but it doesn’t account for labor, which represents upwards of 75 percent of the costs for semi-automated welding.
Fully automated, work cell welding, on the other hand, jumps efficiency to 60% to 80%.
The integration challenge
The most cutting-edge robotic welding solutions are making headway by addressing the industry’s biggest integration challenges.
Typically, robotic welding solutions require an even more specialized skill set than human workers. To an operator of a robotic work cell, the abilities to integrate both welding and programing tasks are paramount.
To date, the integration approach to train trade welders on basic programming and troubleshooting has had limited success.
Three-week training courses help familiarize welders with the work cell machinery, but are impractical for widespread integration, especially given the variety of available systems and the sheer number of variables within the programming.
Robotiq, located just outside Quebec City, addresses this ever-present programming problem with its Kinetiq Teaching Interface.
Known for the design and manufacture of high quality robotic tooling, Robotiq developed the Kinetiq end-effector and interface for multiple industries, but focused on the specific needs of welding first.
Samuel Bouchard, CEO of Robotiq, noted: “SMBs need to automate, especially welding, because there is a chronic shortage in skilled welders. They need to automate, but don’t want to trade the difficulty in finding welders with that of finding a robot programmer.”
Kinetiq Teaching allows a welder to bring the robot through the path needed to complete a weld, test it, and then adjust accordingly to allow for specialized welds and angles that would typically be too complicated to program.
This allows the welder to design the path the way each would manually weld the piece.
“Welding is very path intensive: many points need to be recorded when you program welding. It takes a long time to jog the robot around using the conventional teach pendant approach,” says Bouchard.
Kinetiq is designed to minimize the time between receiving and beginning a job, which typically would be the most time-consuming stage of the weld. The pendant’s user interface relies on clear graphics and a touch screen to reduce the need for in-depth program training.
Compared to standard pendant programming, Kinetiq Teaching increases the speed of programming, saving 20-50 percent of programming time and welder productivity. Where other pendants become a technical block for the average user, Kinetiq is a boon.
Advances like Kinetiq make robots, in Bouchard’s words, “a tool to the welder, so he can leverage his brain power with the robot repeatability and endurance,” which vastly improves acceptance of the work cell among workers and shop owners.
Is a major labor disruption poised to occur?
Treating robots as a tool or extension of the welder is one approach to integrating robotics and welding, but new-age machines also have the potential to be utilized as co-workers for human welders.
The Rapid Manufacturing Lab and Center for Integrated Manufacturing Decision Systems (CIMDS) at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) proved robotics’ usefulness in not just welding, but efficiency planning.
Using the military spec HMMWV (humvee) frame built by Pratt & Miller as a comparison, researchers built a custom variation of the frame in a little under 10 hours; the original took 89 billable hours to complete.
The key to CMU’s significant improvement was to build a system that used augmented reality projection and a laser displacement sensor to evaluate the 3D model of the frame, and then delegate tasks to either the welding robot or human worker so that both would work simultaneously and cooperatively.
Not only was the construction process completed 9-times faster, but the raw materials cost only 6 percent of the total budget, making for a better bottom line and a higher-quality product.
The flexibility of robotics within the welding industry suggests a major labor disruption is poised to occur. However, how best to educate a workforce to optimize robot welding is still uncertain. The question remains: Will the next generation of human welders be training and operating robots, or will they be working side by side with them?
Selling students on machines
A number of vocational and technical programs, with the backing of major welding robotics proponents, have, with reasonable success, adopted robotic welding into their curricula.
The state of Alabama is currently building its final campus in the Alabama Robotics Technology Park (RTP): a 3-facility training program with special emphasis on robotic maintenance, advanced technology R&D, and integration and entrepreneurial training.
The Robotic Maintenance Training Center houses welding robots from ABB, Cloos Robotic Welding, Inc., FANUC, Kawasaki USA, KUKA, Motoman, and OTC.
RTP aims to provide American Welding Society certification in both manual and robotic welding.
While enrollment numbers in welding education programs are slow to grow, especially when compared to the workplace demand for welders, the inclusion of robot welding skills does help to drive interest.
So the real question is not will robotics change the welding industry, but when. And more to the point, how will humans factor into the new dynamic?
Welding might well become the robot revolution’s first truly human-robot trade cooperative or welding guild.