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How To Analyze a Welding Application for Automation

What Is Automated Welding?

Welding automation is broken down into two basic categories: Semi-automatic and Fully Automatic. In semi-automatic welding, an operator manually loads the part(s) into the welding fixture. A weld controller then controls the torch/part motions and welding parameters to ensure a quality, repeatable weld. After the weld is completed, the operator then removes the completed part and the process begins again.

Fully automatic welding uses a custom machine or series of machines to load the workpiece, index the part or torch into position, effect the weld, monitor quality control, and then unload the finished product. Additional "part in place" and final product quality checks may also be designed into the machine if necessary. Depending on the details of the specific operation, a machine operator may or may not be necessary.


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Which Welding Applications Are Most Suitable For Automation?

Applications that benefit most from automation have one or all of the following three basic requirements:

  1. Quality or critical function welds.
  2. Repetitive welds on identical parts.
  3. Parts with significant accumulated value prior to welding.

Excellent candidates for automation include, but are not limited to precision devices such as batteries, capacitor cans, solenoids, sensors transducers & instrumentation, metal bellows & seals, relay cans & enclosures, light bulb elements, fuel filters, thermos flasks, medical components, nuclear devices, pipe to fittings, transformer cores, valve elements and airbag components. Companies that make limited quantities of products may benefit from a semi-automatic system but might not be candidates for fully automated welding systems.


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Benefits Of Automated Welding

The benefits of well-engineered welding systems range from improved weld quality to decreased variable labor costs. The most prominent advantages are:

  1. Improved Weld Quality: Mechanized welding improves weld integrity and repeatability.
  2. Increased Output/Volume: Production weld speeds are set by the machine at a reasonable percentage of maximum. With minimized part set up time, and higher weld speeds increase output.
  3. Decreased Scrap/Rework: Automating the torch/part motions and part placement decreases the error potential.
  4. Decreased Variable Labor Costs: Reliance on human welders dramatically increases a manufacturer's labor costs. A Semi-Automatic system will normally have at least twice the output of a skilled welder. A fully automatic system with sufficient stations can run at four times the pace of semi-automatic system or at eight times the pace of a skilled welder.

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Planning For Welding Automation

The benefits of system automation are accompanied by some challenges. Although these factors can be controlled, they should be recognized from the onset of a project for automated welding.

  1. Higher Initial Investment: Semi-automatic welding systems can be very affordable. Higher levels of automation can have significant equipment costs especially for custom designed systems.
  2. Machine Flexibility: Semi-automatic welding systems are very flexible. More automated systems may have more curtailments on the variety of parts handled.
  3. Commitment to Maintenance: In shifting from labor intensive to capital intensive (automated) processes, companies must also adopt and rigorously follow preventative maintenance programs.
  4. Longer Product Startup Times: Semi-automatic machines can take 4-8 weeks to deliver. Specialized systems, however, commonly have lead times of 20 or more weeks.
  5. Investment In Product Life Cycle: It is crucial to consider your product's position in its life cycle before investing large sums into automation. Automate parts that will still be around next year.

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Strategy For An Automated Welding Project

In times when quality and productivity are watchwords with suppliers and customers are demanding superior products, the implementation of an automated welding system may determine whether a company remains competitive. Use the following strategy and guidelines to help avoid pitfalls.

Project Objectives and Details

What are the exact objectives of the project? What do you specifically want to improve on, speed up, or otherwise change through welding automation?

  1. Quality of Weld Required: Does the function of the part depend on high weld quality? What are the ramifications if the end customer receives or uses a defective part?
  2. Production Requirements: What level of automated welding system will the production system justify?
  3. Materials: What metal materials are involved? Do they lend themselves to automation?
  4. How is the joining process currently being done? What is unsatisfactory about the current joining method?
  5. What budget is available for the welding portion of this project?

Welding Automation Suppliers:

Research the automation supplier thoroughly. Do they have skills both in welding technology and automation? Ask for appropriate references.

Sample Welds:

Before purchasing any system, have the supplier provide you with sample welds using standard production parts if possible. This will show the weld quality and welds speeds possible.

The results of a well thought out plan for an automated welding system are tremendous savings in time and money. Benefits are derived in weld quality, labor savings, decreased costs, ease of operation, repeatability, reliability, scrap and rework reduction, and increased productivity. As companies become increasingly challenged with rising costs and global competition, these are benefits the modern manufacturing organization simply cannot afford to ignore.

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Costing An Automated Welding System

How much automation do you need?

Basic Parameters:

Operator and skilled welder salaries vary somewhat according to geographic location. The basic assumptions used in the calculations below are as follows:

Work hours per year: 2000 (40hours/week x 50 weeks/year)

Manual Welder Costs

Average welder pay: $16.00/hour (ranged from $14.00/hr - $18.00/hr)
Actual welder cost to employer: $24.00/hour = $48,000/year
(1.5 x hourly rate for overhead, vacation, holidays, sick time, social security, unemployment taxes, insurance, etc.)

Operator Costs

Average operator pay: $10.00/hour (ranged from $8.00/hr - $ 12.00/hr)
Actual cost to employer: $15.00/hour = $30,000/year
(1.5 x hourly rate for overhead)

The table below gives a simple example of calculations for return on investment based on equipment and labor costs alone. For a full analysis of actual costs the following must also be considered:

  • Actual Equipment Cost
  • Labor Rates
  • Production Welding Speeds Possible
  • Supervisory Costs
  • Personal Management
  • Quality Control Costs
  • Reject & Scrap Costs
  • Customer Relations


Manual Welding
Semi-Automatic System
Automatic System
Number of systems required for equal output
8x
4x
1x
Individual system cost
$5,000
$30,000
$190,000
Total equipment/system investment
$40,000
$120,000
$190,000
Individual welder cost/year
$48,000
-
-
Individual operator cost/year
-
$30,000
$30,000
Labor cost/year for equal volume of output. (one 8 hour shift)
$384,000
$120,000
$30,000
Labor & equipment costs for a 12 month period with one 8 hour shift
$424,000
$240,000
$220,000
Labor & equipment costs for a 12 month period with two 8 hour shifts
$808,000
$360,000
$250,000
With sufficient production requirements, the choice for automated welding becomes obvious based on labor rates alone. The usual question is how much to automate.
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