Of all the tasks within manufacturing, welding is one that could benefit from automation because of skilled labor shortages, as well as the need for precision and flexibility. MT Solar designs and makes mounting structures for solar modules of all sizes. The Charlo, Mont.-based company faces a 300% jump in demand every summer and found that conventional robots in safety cages could not meet its requirements.
MT Solar ultimately chose Vectis Automation LLC‘s DIY Cobot Welding Tool, which includes a UR10e collaborative robot arm from Universal Robots A/S. The system now handles a wide range of welds, enabling quick changeovers and optimized production, said the manufacturer.
Case study at a glance
|Industry:||Solar power module manufacturer|
|Challenge:||Meeting a tripling in demand each summer amid staffing shortages|
|Partners:||Vectis Automation, Universal Robots|
|Robots:||DIY Cobot Welding Tool, including UR10e arm|
|Tasks:||Small parts welding and handling|
|Value drivers:||Need for flexibility, ease of deployment and use|
|Results:||Improved quality and scalability|
|Return on investment:||1.5 to 2 years|
MT Solar faces challenges with staffing and flexibility
MT Solar experiences a threefold jump in demand for its solar mount products every summer, but it has been unable to find skilled welders to handle the seasonal uptick. Travis Jordan, owner and president of MT Solar, was in his office one day, “just scrambling” to deal with the labor shortage, when an employee handed him an article on welding robots.
“He said, ‘I really think you should look into this; it would be a good solution for our team,'” Jordan recalled. “And I’m like, ‘Well, if you got one of the operators saying you need to look into robotics, you’ve got a reason you should be doing something here.'”
At that point, MT Solar’s lead times were two to three times what they were supposed to be. “It’s hard to find good, skilled people that are willing to come up here and work,” explained Jordan. The company looked into conventional welding robots but found them best suited to huge batches of the same item and lacking in flexibility.
Finding a flexible automation solution was crucial for MT Solar, as the company makes many different types of mounting parts, often in high-mix/low-volume batches.
“Think of us as a ‘solar Ikea,’ if you will — where all the pieces have to go out to the customer to be assembled in the field,” Jordan said. “If I don’t have all the other parts that go with it, I can’t ship anything.”
The cost of conventional automation was compounded by the hassle associated with programming and setup, he added.
“At first, it might look like a good idea to use traditional robots, but when you look at the time and resources to get them up and running and programming. It was not the route we wanted to take,” said Jordan. “Conventional robots aren’t very flexible. They can’t handle a mixed bag. The envelope is too small.”
“Or, the fixturing can’t be manipulated properly, and the cost would have gone through the roof,” he added. MT Solar preferred a system that wouldn’t require safety guarding and that existing operators could handle.
Cobots offer a paradigm shift
Jordan said the paradigm changed when MT Solar discovered Universal Robots. “The big difference is the collaborative robot approach of being able to work with the robot, and it being so teachable and so easy to run,” he noted.
While traditional welding robots require safety cages and can look “kind of like a nightmare,” cobots offer safe human-robot collaboration in close proximity without fences, which further increased the appeal of cobot-powered welding, said Jordan.
“When I zoomed in and discovered Vectis Automation’s Cobot Welding Tool powered by Universal Robots, it became obvious that this combination was the right way to go,” he said.
Operators set up the cell with jigs, supply the parts, and program the system through an intuitive 3D interface directly integrated on the cobot’s teach pendant through Vectis’ URCap software plugin supplied.
The pendant includes a full weld library developed by Vectis Automation, providing standard settings for common weld jobs, including Pattern and Tack tools.
“I am by no means a certified welder,” said Jordan. “I’ll just grab any of the guys out of the shop that are welders, and I’ll say, ‘OK, I’ll run the pendant. You go ahead and run the torch and put it where you want it. Where do you want the weld to start; where do you want it to stop; what angle do you want it to do?’ And we’ve thought through some very advanced welds.”
Once the DIY programming is complete, the robot autonomously runs a full MIG welding cycle. The UR10e welds six to eight parts in each cycle. Typically, these are small parts, including lock collars, beam clamps, and weld nuts.
The cobot welds these in a predefined order and completes four to 12 parts per run with no batching. When it has completed its welding tasks, humans can reload parts and restart the system, if required, or quickly program a new welding job with fresh parts.
The cobot is responsible for welding specific lists of parts every 38-minute shift. Operators work collaboratively with the cobot, loading and unloading during cycles and maximizing the build reach of the machine to cover multiple different fixtures.
Attracted by ease of deployment, ROI
Enthusiasm had been building among MT Solar workers prior to the arrival of the cobot, which made for a “very interesting” first morning together, Jordan explained.
“The robot shows up on the truck, and of course I’m all excited about it,” he said. “I walk out of the office, and I’ve got employees already cutting shrink wrap off the robot and getting ready to set something up. I was like, ‘Hang on! I want to play!’ We had production parts running that afternoon.”
The best thing about the system is that one doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to use it, said Mike Gillin, a certified welder and operations manager at MT Solar.
“I’m a welder by trade, but I didn’t know anything about robots, and I’m not very computer-savvy,” he said. “Curiosity attracted me to the robot, and I was really surprised at how easy it was to figure it out.”
“This is a system that I can rent or lease for a very short period. I can afford that,” Jordan said. “If it doesn’t work, I’m not saddled with the thing. It made it really easy for us to get started.
The system provides a clear return on investment (ROI) by adding another welder to the team, he added. “[It’s] a real clean one-and-a-half, two-year ROI, just on hard-number labor savings,” noted Jordan. The intangible ROI is “probably even more valuable,” he added, because the cobot has had “such a far-reaching impact on both customers and employee morale.”
Results include improved quality, competitiveness
Human welding can accommodate — and introduce — a lot of variance, especially when it comes to monotonous work and relying on the “calibrated thumb,” said Gillin.
“We’ve built up to 7,500 small parts over a winter. For an operator to sit and do that; you can tell where they’ve gotten sick of it, and some of those parts end up being scrapped,” said the operations manager. The cobot welder now performs that repetitive work.
The Vectis/UR system offers the repeatability that manufacturers crave and helps MT Solar maintain consistent product quality, said Jordan.
“Our customers are always excited when we tell them, ‘Hey, you know, that part was welded on a robot.’ They go to put it on, and it looks exactly the same as the last one, and they look high quality,” he said. “I think Universal Robots’ system with Vectis is the best one I’ve run across.”
“Furthermore, the consistency and flexibility of the system enables MT Solar to compete with large corporations,” said Jordan. “It allows us to combine industrial quality and scalability with the innovation and the nimbleness of a small company, which we think is an extremely powerful combination.”
MT Solar plans to acquire more cobots soon for new tasks such as manipulation of heavy and larger parts, which will also alleviate some of the lifting currently performed by employees. “We’ve got a shop full of people that will come up with ideas just based on their exposure to it,” said Gillin.