Metal fabrication manufacturers gain advantage with robots

2008-04-22 - Steve Bartholomew of ABB Robotics explores the case for robotics in metal fabrication and how, by adopting sustainable practices, users can significantly transform productivity and efficiency

The adoption of robotic technology has been steadily increasing over the past few years. In 2006, robotic sales to Europe increased by 11% with a large majority of the sales attributable to the metal fabrication industry. As improvements are noted across Germany, Italy, France and Russia, the pressure to improve business and help towards a sustainable economy continues for manufacturers.

This is where robots can help. By looking to automated technology, metal manufacturers can reduce operating costs and increase production output rates. Robotic technology is great for transforming the workplace and improving health and safety levels whilst encouraging sustainable development and ultimately, business survival.

Welding costs reduced by up to 50%
Evidence of the cost saving ability of robots is highlighted by ABB's experience in the welding of aluminum sections, where manufacturers have typically reduced their overall welding costs by over 50% of the overall product cost, helping to reduce operating costs and increase profits by spending less without compromising product quality. With cycle times typically reduced from 30 min down to 3 min (replacing slower TIG with MIG process), it is easy to see why robots are worth the investment.

One twin robot welding cell can replace 10 manual stations, saving the manufacturer the cost of 10 welding sets and any accompanying fume extraction equipment. With ABB's FlexArc welding cells, three variants of extraction hoods can be fitted to the cells as a single hood, a hood with a fan or a hood with both a fan and an electrostatic filter, to protect employees and remove hazardous fumes from the environment. This also saves valuable floor space, as the new robotic cell reduces the floor space used by approximately 100m2.

By enabling manufacturers to respond faster to market enquiries and orders, robotic technology is helping companies to improve both their overall service levels, and their reputation.In applications where manufacturers have turned to robots, customer orders have been met within an average of five days, reduced from typical 30-day periods, resulting in happier customers.

Justifying the cost of robotics
For any business, the cost of an automated production line must be justified against the possible benefits and improved competition robots can bring. Measuring savings purely against human costs may not provide suitable justification. However, by factoring in the wider cost savings achievable through improved efficiency, enhanced product quality, reduced wastage and savings in energy, manufacturers will see that a robot can typically pay for itself within just two years, compared to the ongoing cost of a manual worker. Consider also that, whereas average wages increased by 74% between 1990 and 2005, a 6-axis industrial robot has halved in price over the same period.

High levels of flexibility
Perhaps the biggest advantage is the high level of flexibility offered by today's robotic technology, encouraging manufacturers to turn to automated technology for safe, flexible and fast solutions. Another challenge increasingly facing metal fabrication manufacturers, is the lack of skilled manual welders, which adds to the need for easy-to-use automation where simplicity is paramount. In fact, what manufacturers often don't realise is that automated technology can help improve working conditions for their staff. By integrating robots, employees will no longer have to work in hazardous environments. Furthermore, by training workers how to use automated technology, companies can often improve staff retention by providing a more stimulating working environment.

Aiming higher for global competition
Keeping ahead of the global competition in the metalworking industry means developing innovative products and lean manufacturing processes. ABB robot systems have helped one Portuguese manufacturer to rise to both these challenges. Farame, a producer of components for steel trolleys and automobile plants, introduced its first ABB robot in 1992 to expand its production line and free the company from dependence on subcontractors and vulnerability to poor quality and late delivery times. It has since purchased eight additional ABB robots, including six IRB 1400 robots. Finally, in January 2006, it installed an IRB 1400 M2000 model with an IRPB 250R positioner and an Arcitec arc-welding machine.

Plug-and Produce standard Arcwelding Systems
In November, the company took delivery of a FlexArc cell, a new approach by ABB involving an IRB 1600 M2004 model with an IRB 250R positioner, a Fronius TPS4000 arc welding machine and a complete safety system, all fitted in a compact, transportable monobloc welding cell. Farame produces between 300 and 400 different products each year and at any one time is simultaneously manufacturing between 20 and 30 separate products. This wide range of different products made in small batches - a big batch for Farame is never more than 1,000 units - requires flexible manufacturing processes and rapid adaptations in production lines that ABB robot systems greatly facilitate. The ability to differentiate products and tailor services to the customer has helped the company rise to the global challenge and compete with low-cost providers in China, Turkey and Eastern Europe.

Manufacturers need to be educated
Robots enable users to achieve a consistently high quality finishing of materials, and their inherent accuracy and repeatability also means that manufacturers can count on a high quality finish for every product produced. ABB offers support for automation - automated technology represents the 'gateway' to a more productive and sustainable workplace. However, in order for manufacturers to compete globally they must be educated about the benefits the technology can bring. This is where ABB can help - by promoting the benefits of the technology and ensuring companies understand the opportunities available.

10 good reasons to invest in robots
ABB's 10 good reasons to invest in robotics guide (available as a pdf file) explains 10 ways in which robots can help companies transform their performance.
>>click here<< to download "10 good reasons to invest in robots" - The Guide

Each of the 10 points is supported by real-life case studies to illustrate how embracing robotic technology has helped companies worldwide to enjoy better business with increased output, improved product quality and greater flexibility. The guide also contains hyperlinks to other useful sources of information, including the different robot options available for specific application areas and details on ABB's flexible choice of service agreements to help support the technology. Designed to reduce the cost of purchasing and maintaining robotic technology, ABB's service agreements help users extend the mean time between failures, shorten the time to repair and lower the overall cost of an automated production line.

The robotic future
Companies across the world are acknowledging the power of robotics to improve productivity, profitability and encourage long term sustainability. As metal manufacturers begin enjoying the benefits of robots, we are confident that the use of automated technology in manufacturing will continue to expand introducing a sustainable, successful and globally competitive economy.

About the author - Steve Bartholomew is metal fabrication product manager for ABB's UK robotics business.

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    Robotic arc welding is delivering significant gains to manufacturers
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