Siouxland Fabricating provides custom fabrication services, including cutting, bending, assembly and welding from its facility in the small town of Rock Valley, Iowa. Siouxland successfully deployed collaborative robots from Universal Robots (UR) on MIG welding and stamping applications, cutting cycle times in half with zero downtime at a fraction of the cost of traditional industrial automation.
Facing long-term challenges finding skilled labor, particularly on the welding side of its business, Siouxland decided to automate welding and stamping tasks. Previous experience with costly and complex traditional robots persuaded the company to explore collaborative robots (cobots) for these tasks due to their affordability, ease of use, and their ability to handle high mix/low volume production.
Siouxland deployed a UR10 cobot on a high mix/low volume stamping application, in which the cobot picks a part, places it in a stamping machine, actuates the machine, and then palletizes the finished part. Based on these positive cobot experiences, it was a small step for Siouxland to ask, “can we stick a welding arm on the end of our UR robot and make it weld?”
“Traditional welding robots require a lot of fixturing, programming, and a lot of tweaking between our robotic programmer and our welder. And it also takes a lot of floor space. We were looking for something that was simple that we could quickly integrate in the shop and start making parts,” said Toby Boogerd, CTO, Siouxland Fabricating, noting that the price of traditional welding robots was also a significant deterrent and that Siouxland wanted its welders to spend more time fabricating and putting parts together and less time laying beads. “We really wanted the robot to mimic what a hand-welder was capable of doing, from circular welds to butt joints.”
As Boogerd researched cobot-powered welding solutions, he discovered the UR10e powered BotX- Welder, developed by Hirebotics and partners Red-D-Arc, Airgas and Air Liquide, and was immediately attracted to its mobility, ease of use, and programming features. Soon after it arrived, welders at Siouxland Fabricating were programming complicated welds using a combination of hand-guiding and the Hirebotics smartphone application.
“One of Hirebotics’ main strongpoints for me is their smartphone application,” said Boogerd. “It just makes sense. When you move the robot, you hit a button on the robot, and it saves that spot.”
BotX can be operated by a welder alone, explained Boogerd. “BotX enables us to let the welder move the robot and create the program on the fly. This was something we had always hoped for and we found the solution. I can weld on the UR robot too; even though I can’t hand-weld.”
Matt Van DeKamp, weld robot supervisor and programmer at Siouxland, appreciates the simplicity of the BotX programming process. “Probably the biggest thing with BotX is being able to get it from Point A to Point B in a fraction of the time. You also have corrective positioning that takes care of positioning and your angle — which is everything in welding. I no longer need the help of the hand-welder, or his opinion of how he would hold his torch. That’s a big deal.”
The usability of the BotX application took a lot of the “nervousness” around automation away, said maintenance and welding supervisor Dan DeMeester. “There’s literally like three buttons you’ve got to know on BotX,” he explained. “Our traditional robots take a lot longer to program. You can get a part and BotX takes 15 minutes to program whereas on another machine it would take a couple hours. I can program it, set the schedules, make sure the part’s good, and run it myself. BotX turned me into a programmer.”
“Traditionally, we would just do two or three passes on welding because we didn’t understand how to use some of those more advanced features,” said Boogerd. “But having used the UR robot, we’re able to use the weaving feature, which cuts cycle time in half. It also saves on consumables since we’re not laying all that extra gas and bead.”
Van DeKamp added, “That was awesome. I now pulse and weave on probably seven different programs, which has helped drastically. I have also taken the advanced welds I have learned on the UR robot and put them on our traditional robots too.”
The BotX Welder deployment freed up workers to focus on more ergonomic, higher-value tasks such as fabricating and tacking, while the robot lays the bead. “In the end, you see more production going out the door because I can have the robot working without an operator having to babysit it,” says Boogerd.
Given the success of its BotX deployment, Siouxland plans to add another welding cobot to its fleet, said Boogerd.
“We have the traditional UR10 robot and the BotX welding robot. And we’ve seen the advantages and production just keeps increasing. And, instead of having to hire more people, we can utilize that time with the robots.” The company also plans to test its stamping cobot on machine tending tasks involving CNC machines, mills and lathes with a view to adding more cobots to that side of its business too.