In recent years, significant advancements in automation technologies have been made, most notably with Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT is the use of the internet in physical devices and everyday objects. IoT is a very broad concept as the “thing” can refer to a wide range of objects including a robot. IoT machines are equipped with internet connectivity and other necessary hardware like sensors or processors that measure and report data via the internet. This data can be a single piece of information from a given sensor, or more complex information from equipment that collect multiple data simultaneously from various inputs. Companies across various industries are using the IoT to operate more efficiently, access real-time data to enhance decision-making, and add value to the business.
IoT and other advancements have enabled a new era of robotic welding. Below are some of the innovations found in the next generation of robots.
Predictive Maintenance with Smart Machines
Manufacturers often feel they are in a constant state of “reacting” to various fabrication issues, and have historically used preventative maintenance to reduce the potential for equipment failures and unexpected downtimes. The IoT is revolutionizing manufacturing by enabling the efficient collection of - and access to - large quantities of data instantaneously – and the result what is called “smart manufacturing”. Smart machines collect and use data to monitor their own health, alerting of potential failure points or anticipated issues based on the data collected – a process known as predictive maintenance. The IoT enables predictive maintenance, which is based on real-time condition of a specific piece of equipment, compared to traditional preventative maintenance which is generally based on averages and historical data of equipment.
Furthermore, smart machines, such as those utilized in robotic welding, are able to create a signature of a robot’s health, such as the amps pulled during a given task. When the robot’s signature varies from the norm, artificial intelligence predicts an issue and allows manufacturers to proactively schedule downtime for maintenance and repairs before the equipment suffers damage or a failure that would unexpectedly stop production. When it comes to robotic welding, end-of-arm-tooling effectors are now often equipped with sensors that are IoT connected for real-time data collection and optimization. These sensors can also give robots a perceived sense of touch and sight during welding operations, improving weld performance real-time. This level of detail is extremely valuable as it optimizes welding performance and improves consistency – saving fabricators and customers money and time.
Significant developments have been made in the software that supports robotic automation. Programs are more user-friendly, and are more easily programmed to execute complex welding jobs such as tubes or other circular shapes that require curved welds. Another advancement is the ability to program offline.
Offline programming allows fabrication activities to continue while new programs are entered into the software. This may not seem like a big deal but it is a huge advancement. Instructions for future robotic welding can be programmed into the equipment without interrupting the robot’s current welding task – saving time. Also, in the past, robotic welding was often reserved for large volume fabrications; however, with offline programming, small volumes and individual parts are more feasible and economic.
Historically, robotic welding tasks required the robot to get into the proper position and come to a complete stop before welding was initiated. In the new era of robotic welding, there is the concept of “on the fly” welding. As the name implies, welding is started before the robot comes to a stop. On the fly welding is being developed for laser as well as MIG welding. In the example of laser welds, the laser is engaged and welding begins once the weld is visualized by the scanning equipment – all while the robot is in motion and is still moving into position. The benefit of this technology is the reduction in cycle time – even a fraction of a second adds up to a huge time savings when performing a repetitive job over time.