The manufacturers and systems integrators that gathered for ABB's 2010 Robotic Technology Days, April 21-22, in Auburn Hills, Mich., showed up in good moods. The economy looks to be slowly emerging from the depths, and the technological innovations haven't slowed down during the slowdown.
The past 16 months have been very sobering for those involved in the robotics industry. It has slumped with the automotive and automotive components industries, where most robots are used in the U.S.
According to Paul Kellett, director of market analysis, Robotic Industry Association, Ann Arbor, Mich., shipments of industrial robots in 2009 decreased by more than 50 percent when compared to 2008, from 16,242 in 2008 to 7,864 in 2009. Shipments in early 2010 remain sluggish as well.
"The Great Recession has really knocked the stuffing out of our industry," Kellett said during a presentation.
Like general industry, the robotics industry is looking for growth opportunities elsewhere. As the automotive and metals industries shrink, more robots are being sold in the food and consumer goods and pharmaceutical industries. However, those gains do not offset the decline in traditional manufacturing segments.
One of the reasons traditional manufacturers will seek out robotic technology likely is technological innovation. Attendees at ABB's open house event got to see evidence of this firsthand.
Bob Brown, CEO, Integrated Systems Inc., Darlington, S.C., mentioned the work his company was doing in the area of heavy welding, or the welding of any large part that doesn't lend itself to being fixtured in a traditional way. He said his team is very good at collecting all the information (location, length, width, and consistency of groove to be filled) it can about a weldment before unleashing the GMAW robot on the project. Even so, they still would find inconsistencies in some welds.
Because of the extensive data capture the team conducted, they could always go back and check the welding parameters before and during the weld. In one case, they found that the operator was simply plugging the wrong information, a botched measurement, into the computer, so they turned over measuring responsibilities to the robot. In other cases, however, they were left scratching their heads.
That's when Brown realized that the heat transfer effect was a likely culprit of some of these welding difficulties. As a result, the team came up with a "heat factor" that helps them make adjustments to the GMAW robot before welding commences. The company has shared its findings with ABB, and their efforts could conceivably eliminate some guesswork for other robotic welding operations.
Jeff Defalco, ESAB Welding & Cutting Products, Florence, S.C., shared his company's developments in the area of plasma technology. While not widespread in general manufacturing, he said the technology really makes sense for some materials.
"Plasma welding lends itself to nonferrous quite well," Defalco said, referring to 2000 and 7000 series aluminum and titanium.
The real news, however, was in the area of changeover. Defalco said ESAB's M3 plasma technology allows a robot to switch between plasma cutting, gouging, and welding with only a few minutes needed to change front-end consumables. Some companies may need to compensate the plasma power supply depending on the material and its thickness, but for the most part, a robot armed with a plasma power source could conceivably pierce material up to about 75 mm, cut material 150 mm thick, and weld all in a matter of minutes, according to Defalco.
Nathan Moyer, a welding specialist for Airgas Great Lakes, Independence, Ohio, told attendees about the importance of the right shielding gas for efficient robotic welding. Too many times a metal fabricator assumes everything is OK with the shielding gas selection for a robotic welding operation because the customer never raised an issue over it, Moyer said. However, the fabricator could be changing the material's metallurgy without even knowing it. Such is the case when a fabricator is using a shielding gas mix that contains more than 3 percent CO2 on a stainless steel welding job; that additional CO2 eventually will cause that stainless steel joint to rust even if the initial weld looks acceptable after a simple visual check.
Moyer added that the use of premixed gas can eliminate the guesswork. It also can contribute to higher production efficiency because the right mixure may allow the robot to run at higher speeds.
Those types of advancements will keep the robotics industry moving forward. Kellett puts the North American robotics market at $3 billion, so it's not likely to disappear anytime soon.