Cobots star at FABTECH 2021

There could be no more suitable location than Chicago, in the industrial heartland of the Midwest, for the long-awaited return of FABTECH after a two-year hiatus. More than a thousand stands, spread over three halls, brought together representatives in metal – from cutting, welding, shaping and finishing to additive printing, lasers, automation and robotics, along with management, workforce development, and more.

The pandemic has left its fingerprint in many ways. Not only was FABTECH largely a non-contact event – rather than pick up a brochure, you scanned a code for a digital copy – but clearly everyone had been busy in isolation, making great leaps forward into the digital workspace. This was particularly evident in the trademark features of Industry 4.0, including automation/robotics, AI, the IIoT (Industrial IoT), and smart manufacture in general.

Cobots meeting labour needs

A key topic of conversation was the ongoing labour shortage. With ‘help wanted’ signs seemingly in front of every US business, we’re all aware of how the post-pandemic economic recovery, on top of the longer-term trend away from factory roles, has caught us short-handed at precisely the point when we need a skilled, ‘smart’ workforce to operate the dazzling range of new technologies on offer. The American Welding Society, for example, forecasts that the United States will be 400,000 welders short by 2024, a trend which will be repeated over many industrialised economies. 

This is where cobots – collaborative robots – can help. When a manufacturing plant short on labour needs to maximise its human capital, cobots can meet people halfway and take on an ever-widening range of roles in close proximity to existing staff – from repetitive tasks that require unerring accuracy (such as pick-and-place or packing), to some amazingly nimble actions, all with very little programming.

Cutting-edge welding

It wasn’t long ago, for instance, that robotic arc-welding was considered state-of-the-art and available only to large manufacturers, but today you can pack five different welding machines on a single robotic unit, enabling multiple different weld types to be executed by a single station for greater flexibility. This puts it in reach of a range of manufacturers who have a higher mix of products and welding requirements.

The first welding systems mounted on Universal Robots (who are distributed by Facteon) were unveiled at FABTECH 2017. At this year’s show, collaborative UR-based welding systems were everywhere, from MIG, TIG and plasma cutting solutions to heavy-duty water-cooled welding. What was striking was the ease of operation: if you can use a smartphone, you can learn to programme a cobot welder.

We also saw developments in laser beam shaping. While beam shaping has been available for a while in CO2 lasers, it can now be applied to fibre lasers. The heat profile of the beam can be fine-tuned to aid penetration and reduce spatter, improving the quality and stability of welds. This is enabling hard-to-weld materials like aluminium and copper (key materials used in the manufacture of EV batteries) to be processed reliably, and is offering a viable alternative to existing single-mode and visible-wavelength solutions. In our own laser welding machinery, we have deployed beam shaping for the butt welding of thin stainless steels and realised a 10% improvement in weld speed. We continue to keep a close watch on the development of laser technology, which we incorporate into many of our welding lines.  

As well as welding, cobots and industrial robots can paint, sand-blast, perform quality control, assemble parts, tend to other machinery, and more, all while connected to cloud-based computing. A single cobot can be programmed to multi-task, too, in ways that enable companies to take an agile and affordable path to automation.

Automation onboarding

This brings us back to labour. Future-facing companies that move into automation will be bringing robotics programmers and engineers onto staff, so talent development is key.

Facteon work as consulting automation and software engineers and programmers. When clients have decided on automation and need to know what will work for them, we help them find a tailored solution and onboard it. UR’sproducts, for instance, include a range of cobots for different payloads and applications (such as assembly, dispensing, machine tending, handling, QC, and of course welding), as well as end-effectors and software. They are supported by the UR+ ecosystem, which serves as an ‘app store’ for cobots, with all products certified as ready for UR’s arms. We’ve deployed cobots into a variety of industries ranging from appliances to electronics manufacturing and automotive componentry, all supported by the UR+ ecosystem.

When working with a client who is considering automation, we’ll usually start by visiting their plant and literally walking the production floor to identify roles we can streamline or bottlenecks we can free up. There may be 300 or so human-executed tasks required to assemble a product; we might begin by targeting the first 20 that are particularly repetitive and appropriate for automation, and proceed from there. Once we have the information from a client, we can progress to a solution.