Automation is a wide range of technologies that reduce human intervention in processes. Human intervention is reduced by predetermining decision criteria, sub-process relationships, and related actions — and embodying those pre-determinations in machines.

M. S. Subramanian,
Technical Director,
SURAKSH ENTERPRISES
Vice Chairman,
The Indian Institute of Welding (IIW-India),
Pune Branch

Automation can be Simple Mechanisation or Complex Programmable

A simple example of automation in daily life is text messaging.  Simply put, the automatic sending or triggering of text messages to individuals or groups of people with little or no manual intervention. Marketing automation has become extremely popular with brands as it allows them to personally engage with their audience at scale.

Automation is essentially the use of automated technology and machinery for processes such as manufacturing, eliminating the need of extra labour. The advantages of automation are:

  • Reduced Human Labour Required
  • Consistency in Quality
  • Fewer risks of Human Error

At the same time it also improves the social status level of the welder to a better and higher responsibility and understand the nuances of using a latest technology and improve his knowledge.

Automation results in;

  • Repeatability
  • Reliability
  • Reproduce ability
  • Retracebility

Top 5 Automations Possibilities are;  

 PICK & PLACE

 Best for material handling.  Can be programmed for pickup of the right component and reject unsatisfactory components at a greater speed than human.

 ASSEMBLY

 Monotonous Assembly Line Jobs, High Risk Areas, Less Efficient Human Hands Can Be Replaced.

MACHINE TENDING

 Need not attend to the machine all the time switching it on and off.

 WELDING

 Complete consistency on simple welding tasks, which is difficult for human to maintain for hours on end, and reduce wasted material.

 PALLETISING

 Is an exhausting and potentially dangerous job, particularly if you are handling dangerous goods.

 Why do we need automation?

Automation reduces time, effort, and cost, while reducing manual errors, thus giving your business more time to focus on your primary objectives.

Repetitive tasks can be completed faster. Automating processes ensures high quality results as each task is performed identically, without human error. 

What are the basic elements of automation?

The main subsystems and components of a machine automation system are:

  • power distribution
  • motor control and drives
  • safety system
  • programmable controllers
  • discrete and analog I/O
  • communication systems
  • human-machine interface (HMI)

Different types of Industrial Automation Systems are:

  •  Fixed Automation
  •  Programmable Automation
  • Flexible Automation
  • Integrated Automation
  • Artificial intelligence (AI) automation
  1. FIXED AUTOMATION

Also referred to as hard automation, fixed automation systems carries out a single set of tasks without deviation. Because of its function, this type of system would typically be used for discrete mass production and continuous flow systems. An example of a fixed automation equipment would be an automated conveyor belt system designed to increase efficiency by moving objects from point A to B without minimal efforts. Just like all other fixed automation system equipment, automated conveyor belts perform fixed and repetitive operations to achieve high production volumes.

Manufacturing processes compatible with this system would be:

Repetitive manufacturing which allows for variations within the manufacturing process although limited (e.g. in food packaging or the textile industry)

Adopting a fixed automation system such as automated conveyer belts and including value-added solutions meant to cut both time and labor costs in their installation, eases off competitive pressure for your business, increases your profit margin, and keeps you one step ahead of the competition. An example of a value-added solution would be using bundled wire for automated conveyer systems. This not only cuts down installation time, but also lowers labor costs and keeps employees safe from injuries associated with pulling wire during installation.

  1. PROGRAMMABLE AUTOMATION

As the names suggests, programmable automation runs through commands delivered by a computer program.

This means that the resulting processes can vary widely with changing instructions given to the computer through a series of code.

However, as the programming efforts are non-trivial, the processes hence the tasks do not change much.

This type of automation is common in mass production settings which produce similar types of products that utilize many of the same steps and tools like in paper mills or steel rolling mills.

Manufacturing processes compatible with this system would be:

Repetitive manufacturing whereby the same products are being produced over a long period of time and in large batches. These types of equipment can keep carrying with very little human supervision. They are typically used in automobile and machinery manufacturing.

The initial set up of programmable automation equipment may require a high cost but because the processes are continuous and relatively unchanging, they tend to be less expensive in the long run.

  1. FLEXIBLE AUTOMATION

Also referred to as soft automation, this type of automation is utilized in computer-controlled flexible manufacturing systems and allows for a more flexible production. Every equipment receives instructions from a human-operated computer which means that the tasks can vary widely with changing code delivered to the computer.

This type of automation would typically be used in batch processes and job shops with high product varieties and low-to-medium job volume, such as in textile manufacturing.

Manufacturing processes compatible with this system would be:

Discrete manufacturing which allows for variations within the manufacturing process although limited e.g. in food packaging or the textile industry.

Job shop manufacturing which occurs within set production areas and is more labor intensive compared to other forms of manufacturing. An example would be making custom machinery.

Batch process manufacturing whereby raw materials move through the production line in batches such that there is a pause between each step as a batch moves through (e.g. in the pharmaceutical industry and in paint manufacturing).

Continuous process manufacturing which offers consistent processing as the manufacturing process from beginning to end does not change. This type of manufacturing is commonly used in food and beverage manufacturing as well as oil and gas manufacturing

  1. INTEGRATED AUTOMATION

Integrated automation involves the total automation of manufacturing plants as it is entirely handled by computers and control processes with minimal human involvement. Computers can design the necessary parts, test the designs, and fabricate the parts. Integrated automation, like flexible automation, is compatible with both batch process manufacturing and continuous process manufacturing.

Technologies that use this type of automation include:

  • Computer-aided process planning
  • Computer-supported design and manufacturing
  • Computer numerical control machine tools
  • Computerized production and scheduling control
  • Automatic storage and retrieval systems
  • Flexible machine systems
  • Automated material handling systems, e.g. robots
  • Automated conveyor belts and cranes
  1. ARTIFICIAL INTELLLIGENCE (AI) AUTOMATION

 The most complex level of automation is artificial intelligence (AI) automation. The addition of AI means that machines can “learn” and make decisions based on past situations they have encountered and analyzed. For example, in customer service, virtual assistants powered can reduce costs while empowering both customers and human agents, creating an optimal customer service experience.

Essentials for automation to be successful

Programmable controllers and I/O

Available in form factors from small to large, the machine controller can be a programmable logic controller (PLC), a programmable automation controller (PAC), or a PC. The complexity of the machine control application, end-user specifications, and personal preference drive controller selection. Many vendors have families of controllers to cover a range of applications from simple to complex, allowing a machine builder to standardize to some extent. Often three or more physical configurations-small, medium, and large form factors-are available from the controller manufacturer.

Using the same software platform to program a family of controllers is becoming the norm. This allows the designer to first program the system, and then select the right controller based on its capacity to handle the number of I/O points needed, as well as special functions such as proportional, integral, derivative control and data handling. Required capabilities like extensive communications and high-speed control should be carefully evaluated, as these are often the main factors driving controller selection.

Discrete and analog inputs and outputs connect the controller to the machine sensors and actuators. These signals can originate in the main control panel through a terminal strip with wiring to field devices, but a distributed I/O architecture is often a better solution. Distributed I/O reduces wiring by moving the input or output point closer to the field device, and by multiplexing multiple I/O signals over a single cable running from the remote I/O component to the control panel.

For distributed I/O at a smaller scale, IO-Link is a point-to-point serial communication protocol where an IO-Link-enabled device connects to an IO-Link master module. This protocol communicates data from a sensor or actuator directly to a machine controller. It adds more context to the discrete or analog data by delivering diagnostics and detailed device status to the controller.

Communication systems

 Another important part of machine control now and for the future is extensive communication capability. It is a good practice to have multiple Ethernet and serial ports available to integrate to a variety of equipment, computers, HMIs, and business and enterprise systems (figure 3).

Multiple high-speed Ethernet ports ensure responsive HMI communication, as well as peer-to-peer and business system networking. Support of industrial Ethernet protocols, including EtherNet/IP and Modbus TCP/IP, is also important for scanner/client and adapter/server connections. These Ethernet connections enable outgoing email, webserver, and remote access communication functions-all important options for machine control.

Machine control often benefits from the availability of legacy communication methods, such as serial RS-232 and RS-485. Modern controllers often also include USB and MicroSD communication and storage options.

A big part of machine control communication is cybersecurity. Consider a layered defense where protection includes remote functions that are only enabled as part of the hardware configuration. For further protection, all tags should be protected from remote access unless the tag is individually enabled for that purpose.

Human-machine interface

The HMI shows vital information about machine conditions using graphical and textual views. HMIs can be in the form of touch panels, text panels, message displays, or industrial monitors. They are used for monitoring, control, status reporting, and many other functions.

The purpose of the HMI must be clearly defined. Some machines may only need a fault message display with few control functions. Other machines may demand a detailed view of machine status, access to system parameters, and recipe functionality. Clearly defining the need of the machine will help determine HMI size and capabilities, and this should be done early in the design process.

HMIs can also act as data hubs by connecting to multiple networked devices. In some machine control applications, multiple protocols may be used, and often HMIs can be used for protocol conversion. This functionality can be used to exchange data, such as status and set points, among different controllers and other smart devices.

Some HMIs can also send data to the cloud or enable remote access functionality through the Internet, given proper user name and password authentication.

Work together

Machine automation systems consist of multiple subsystems and components to provide the required power distribution, safety, and real-time control. Each of these subsystems and components must work together, and many are often networked to each other via either hardwiring, or increasingly via digital communication links. Careful design, selection, integration, and testing will ensure the automation system performs as required, both initially and throughout the life cycle of the machine.

The Pros and Cons of Automation in the workplace

BENEFITS DRAWBACKS
Increased Employee Engagement Cost of Implementation
Consistent on Time Output Shifts in Employees Roles
Fewer Costly Errors Need for Reskilling and Training
Growth and Scalability Loss of Flexibility

Current Challenges of the Welding Industry

 Welder Shortage Situation

 The average age of welders is approx. 60. And hiring welder help is difficult because of the aging workforce. Young people are difficult and also reluctant to take up a monotonous job, Dirty, and not paying well, to be encouraged to take up welding as a career.  Having identified it, one of the ways suggested is investment in vocational welder education as a solution to the problem. This solution is an excellent one. But, it takes time for it to grow.

There should a strong push for students in a college to take up the challenges in welding.  Welding should be a complete course in Degree collage education, and Diploma course, to produce more welding engineers and skilled welders. Today the welder is a professional by virtue of practice and experience not by knowledge.  Periodic education will upgrade his skill level as well as knowledge.

With Automation, and introduction of advanced power sources with Artificial intelligence, his knowledge level increases and welding is no more DIRTY.

High Welding Costs

 Reducing welding cost is the priority?

Do you want to stand out among the competition and increase your bottom line.  Welding costs are not to be neglected. Here are the main welding cost drivers that you can start to address:

Labour costs : 85% of welding costs come from labour. So, labor is where you need to cut costs, but how? Think about how you can optimize your welders’ time and work so that they can produce more and faster.  Better Machines, Better Work Environment, Better Education, Inter Welder Competition, Schemes by which they can Contribute.

Reject, rework and scrap costs : Reduce these by detecting welding defects early on. When you don’t notice a missed or faulty weld earlier, costs can escalate at every stage of the welding process.

For example, you can quickly repair a defective weld with minimal expense if caught early on. But a faulty weld detected after painting can cost more. It costs more because you’ll have to strip the paint out and return the wrong part to the weld cell for repairs. Moreover, the worst-case scenario of a defective piece is bodily harm or property damage.

BEST IS TO MAKE IN THE FIRST PLACE WITHOUT DEFECTS.

Post-weld operations costs : Examine your welding process. Post-weld grinding of spatter and excess weld metal can eat up your welders’ time and increase your lead time.

With cleaner welds done the first time, you’ll save time and money.

This is obtainable by continuus education to the Welder as well as investing in a better machine.  Normal feeling is excessive deposit, then ginding it off.  It’s a waste of material  labour and consumables.

Non-value added tasks costs : Avoid paying overtime by streamlining your welding process. You want to reduce any unnecessary steps that cause delays and more welder time than needed.

Improper planning results in avoidable overtime

The Need to Increase Productivity

The welding industry is very competitive. New materials and processes are continually being introduced. To stay afloat, you need to improve productivity. High productivity translates to increased profitability.

You can improve productivity by improving the consistency in your weld operations. Because of human constraints, weld quality will vary. Even the most skilled human welder in your company is sure to have a bad day. And the continuous monotony of the job can lead to tiredness and fatigue. Fatigue can manifest itself in the roughness of the seam weld and post-weld operations increase.

Quick Tip

Another way to up productivity is to examine your weld process with an

open mind. Understand where the bottlenecks lie and either eliminate

or replace them. For example, replace processes that cause unnecessary

downtime. Minimizing quality issues can also boost productivity.

 CHOOSE THE RIGHT PROCESS AND THE CONSUMABLES.  UPGRADE THE KOWLEDGE AND THE MACHINE PERIODICALLY.

Quoting Challenges: Costs and Lead Times

 In any welding shop, knowing how to calculate welding costs and time is essential.

These two things are vital for client quotations and production lead time.

The challenge comes from calculating time as it relies on the human variable. We all know humans can be highly unpredictable. No matter how much allowance you give in your calculation, sometimes it’s not enough. Delays can happen; your welders can get tired or have a bad day that can affect their work. This normal human behavior can wreak havoc on your lead time. As you know, clients are not happy with delays and long lead times. Not having a surefire way to quote your jobs might lead to your company losing contracts or rejecting welding jobs.

BY EMPLOYING THE RIGHT PROCESS AND THE MACHINE AND THE WELDING PROCEDURE YOU CAN PRODUCE IN THE SHORTEST TIME A GOOD QUALITY PRODUCT.

BBY 6

Automated Welding to the Rescue

 Welding automation with robotics is one of the keys to solve the previous challenges.

With robotic welders, you can do more work with the welders that you already have.

They take over mundane, repetitive tasks in a precise and predictable manner.

 Not All Robotic Solutions are the same

Industrial welding robots were built with the automobile industry in mind.

They are big and bulky and are made for high-volume production. They also require complex programming. These robots can be more expensive with their rigid installation and jigs placed in a robotic welding cell. They are not so much a fit for the low volume, high mix environments of most small and flexible welding operations.

These reasons make the industrial robot less than ideal for your low volume, high mix environments of small to medium companies like yours.

Welding with a Collaborative Robot

If automation is the answer to your problems, but industrial robots are not the right fit, what is?

Let’s talk about collaborative robots. Welding with a collaborative robot is a viable option for businesses, especially those looking to automate their welding workflow. They also work great with low volume, high mix environments

What are Collaborative Robots?

Collaborative Robots are robotic arms coupled with end-of-arm toolings (EoAT) like grippers, sensors, or welding equipment. Once programmed, they can work safely with humans in a shared space, unlike traditional industrial robots that work with no human intervention.

Cobots are an ideal choice for smaller manufacturers who deal with low-volume, highmix production for many reasons.

Once set up, they can work alongside human workers, unlike industrial robots built to do one task in a high-volume environment.

Industrial robots may need complex codes and programming, but you can use cobots even if you have no programming experience.

Benefits of Welding with a Collaborative Robot

There are many benefits to welding with a collaborative robot, cost savings, boost in productivity and flexibility are just a few of the advantages that you can look forward to. Let’s discuss how it can positively impact your welding workflow.

Increased Capacity and Boosted Productivity

Suppose you have a small to medium welding company struggling to fulfill large order quantities. In that case, a cobot welder can help you solve these issues. It can weld small parts all day if needed without taking a break and take the pressure off your welders. They can then concentrate on other more significant, value-driven tasks.

Also, it’s lightweight, and without safety fences, so it can be moved from one location to another as needed.

You can also take on different new jobs with small or bigger batches while understanding the cost and time needed to produce.

Cost Savings and Flexibility

In high-mix, low volume production, a collaborative robot is adaptable to perform different tasks in a day. Once programmed, a welding cobot can pull up already programmed jobs anytime and adapt to new sizes and geometries. For example, a collaborative robot can do a small batch production in the morning and do another job in the afternoon. Think of it as having an all-around assistant ready to help with any task. And because of its increased precision, a welding cobot tool can use materials more efficiently and welds faster. This translates to cost savings and higher yield. Studies show that you can expect a return of investment within 6 to 13 months with a welding cobot.

11 Constant Quality

There is no doubt that certified welders are great at their job. Still, the constant repetition of the task can often result in human error and sometimes poor quality results as the welders get tired.

A cobot welder can take over the repetitive, mundane tasks of welding small parts. Once programmed, it produces the same quality 24/7 as required.

Again, this automation assists your welders and frees them up to do more critical tasks.

Easy to Install and Maintain

Industrial welding robots are bigger, need to work in enclosed robotic cells, and need advanced programming knowledge to set up. Welding cobots, on the opposite, are relatively easy to install and move around. They also don’t need robotics specialists to program. Instead, you can train your current welding team to start, program, and maintain the robot.

Collaborative robots are making welding automation more accessible to SME’s than ever. They are increasing productivity and bringing cost savings through their ease of use and flexibility

Considerations before thinking of Automation

  • WHAT IS GOING TO BE THE ROI. – if your return on investment is going to take a pretty long time it is advisable not to think of automation
  • Consider the cost of Automation proposed and work out the pay back period. Are you having orders till then?
  • Best thumb rule is to aim at ROI in two years time
  • Consider the cost of the jigs and fixtures required for automation. The common mistake is not considering this.  Sometimes the jigs and fixtures are more costly than the automation system.
  • Consider the cost of training, programming, knowledge level current and future, and the maintenance costs.
  • Whats the current production and how many the automation will produce in a shift?
  • Whats the cost of labour saved?  Consider upgrading of the knowledge.
  • Cost of training your maintenance personnel to solve problems quickly. A breakdown automation is going to cost a lot of money.
  • Consider the intangibles, viz., Production Stability, Employee safety, Improved Efficiency, More Return Clients and Businesses

How To Get Started With a  Welding Robot – Step by Step

1 – Get Everybody On Board And Set Your KPIs

2 – Decide on Which Task To Automate

3 – Start Small First

4 – Preparing the Jigs and Fixtures

5 – Choose Your Automation Solution Correctly

6 – Train Your Welders

7 – Troubleshoot, Optimize, Repeat