One part of the 100,000-ft2 Automation Center of Excellence that Lincoln Electric Co. opened next to its headquarters in Cleveland in November is a combined showroom and applications laboratory in which the company's customers would be able to have parts set up and welded.
That room had a series of what appeared to be machine tools set up in it. But they weren't machine tools.
The equipment was what Lincoln Electric calls its pre-engineered systems. These systems are a line of several machines — they look like welding booths — that include welding equipment, tables and positioners to hold the work, a robot or two, and the appropriate shielding for the application. Lincoln Electric has about three machines in this line for now.
They are designed to be flexible and adaptive so that they can be used on a wide range of welding applications. In addition, the company said they can be designed to meet the needs of unique applications that might require special positioning, handling or fixturing.
I found several things impressive about these welding systems:
First, they are compact, so they don't have a “foot-print” that demands a huge amount of space in a shop.
As part of being compact, they are self-contained, so everything from welding cables to wire drums to fume extraction are built into the units.
And, most importantly, these systems take the automation of the welding process to a new level.
Many companies are working on ways to automate welding processes, and many of the systems that are talked about are designed to weld large assemblies that have huge, long welds that can take hours to do manually.
The smaller automated welding cells use technologies and software, and robots to handle work pieces in ways that are similar to the ways that technologies, software and robots are used for welding large work, and it was only a matter of engineering to make the equipment and programs for working on smaller parts.
Yet, I think the implication of these smaller, versatile automated welding cells is greater. I think these systems will have the ability to boost the productivity of a welding shop by multiple factors and, with the shortage of skilled welders that the United States is facing, they have the ability to increase productivity while requiring minimum labor.
Imagine having several of these systems set up in a shop and — as is done by machine shops with machine tools — for that shop to run lights-out on a 24/7 basis.
Imagine that job shop with 5 or 10 or 20 of these systems set up to be fed by automated material handling equipment, welding a variety of parts. The raw materials can be fed to the machines and removed by a robot, the cells do the welding work, and the work is monitored remotely. So if a problem develops, notification is sent to a cell phone or to an email address.
Certainly, trained, skilled welders would be needed. Someone would have to be there to ensure that adjustments are made when needed, to replace wire drums and other consumables, to deliver the raw materials to the feeding equipment and to remove parts that are completed.
These systems are too new to say that one experienced welder would be needed to tend three machines, but maybe one welder could tend 10 of these systems. Or, maybe one skilled welder would be needed to attend all of the machines along with a “machine operator” who would be responsible for material handling and other minor tasks.
However, no matter what the labor input, these systems hold the potential to make welding shops more efficient and to boost productivity significantly.