Many manufacturers have implemented automation into their day-to-day operations, and the automotive industry is no different. In fact, robots have been aiding in the production of cars since 1967 when General Motors (GM) implemented the first industrial robot, called the UNIMATE, which performed spot welding. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that robotic welding began to take off and other automotive companies followed GM’s lead.
Today, about half of manufacturing robots are used for welding applications, with many being utilized in the automotive industry. It’s easy to see why. These welders increase safety in the workshops by removing the human element from hazardous welding work, keeping workers away from fumes, chemicals, extreme heat and noise, as well as weld flash. They also reduce musculoskeletal stress from twisting, lifting, and other repetitive motions. These robots also aid in crash safety tests, keeping not only the workers out of harm’s way, but also future consumers.
Not only have robotic welders increased safety in factories, but they have also saved many automotive manufacturers millions of dollars by doubling, or even tripling, their production time by significantly cutting labor costs. Robots, unlike humans, do not require breaks and can work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week if the manufacturers so choose. Not only, but these robots do not require pay or benefits, thus saving these companies even more. Robots also do not drop parts or handle them in ways that could be potentially damaging, thus, reducing waste previously caused by human error. These savings far outweigh the cost of any maintenance and repairs that may be required, and even the initial cost in buying these machines (ranging from $30,000-$250,000 per machine) can be overshadowed by the return on investment (ROI) they provide.
Not only that, but another reason why automobile manufacturers use robotic welders is their ability to consistently meet industry expectations without delays and within time constraints. They produce accurate, high-quality welds with fewer mistakes and, thus, accidents. Robots can also perform a myriad of jobs, such as welding, painting, finishing, and many others. Their programming allows them to perform intricate tasks with ease. With new industry standards calling for lighter cars, these machines are able to produce tighter welds that can only be accomplished by robots. Robotic welders play a key role in the automotive industry by being able to produce new and advanced, high quality vehicles. As specifications set by the industry become more precise, these robots are able to meet them faster and more efficiently.
There are two basic categories of robotic welders: fully automatic, and semiautomatic.
Semiautomatic welding, often good for limited quantities of products, requires an operator to manually load the parts into the fixture. A weld controller then ensures the welding, torch, and parts all stay with preset parameters. Once completed, the operator removed the finished assembly.
In fully automatic welding – ideal for critical welds, repetitive work on identical parts, or if the parts are already hold significant value – there are custom machines, or sometimes even a series of custom machines, set up to load parts, move the torch, weld, monitor the quality of said weld, and then unload the completed part. Some custom machines even have product quality checks added into its programming. Depending on the operation, an operator may need to be present.
The Human Element
This is not to say that the human element is obsolete in the automotive industries. Whereas a manual welder can transition from one part to another with relative ease, a machine is often limited to its one specific programmed task. Manufacturers must have techs on staff to maintain, calibrate, fix, and sometimes program these costly investments to keep them running smoothly. It also could take several months for each machine to arrive, depending on its complexity, leaving manual welders to pick up the slack.
With regularly high demand from consumers, and productivity and quality being paramount to manufacturers, it is obvious why many car companies automate their assembly lines. The speed and efficiency of machines has drastically changed the way we build cars today, and with constant technological advances improving the process further, it is easy to see the advantages of robotic welding.