Welding shop boosts productivity and addresses skilled labor shortage with UR cobots

Processed Metal Innovators

In short

Wisconsin-based Processed Metal Innovators (PMI) is a metal fabricator that produces hundreds of different stamped and welded metal parts for heavy equipment, automobiles, appliances, and more. With a tight labor market, few available certified welders and traditional robotic welders unable to handle small runs, PMI turned to the Universal Robots cobot-powered BotX Welder to dramatically increase productivity and profitability.

Erik Larson, VP of operations at PMI, was tired of turning business away due to labor shortages. “There’s been a lot of business that’s come knocking on our door,” he explains, “and a lot of it in the past we’ve had to no-bid because it requires welding. We only have about seven welders and for some of these jobs we needed nine or ten welders. Right now, we have enough quotes out there that we would have to have hired 30 more welders.” With the labor shortage in Wisconsin making it tough to hire certified welders and with traditional robotic welders not feasible for high mix/low volume production, Larson needed another option.

The business transformation

The company had already turned to collaborative robots from Universal Robots (UR) to tend two mechanical presses. The cobots pick parts from a conveyor, place them in stamping presses and move the parts to another conveyor. The cobots were implemented by Hirebotics, a UR Certified Systems Integrator that provides cloud-connected robots billed hourly for the time they work, eliminating capital outlays and simplifying applications. That success led PMI to look for other applications to automate in order to keep growing the company. When PMI heard about Hirebotics’ new BotX welder, the pieces clicked into place.

“We selected the BotX robots due to the fact that they are collaborative robots and you don’t need a large guarding system around them. They’re very small, easy to use, very easy to teach. It’s a win-win package—it’s the future for doing small welds,” says Larson.

Processed Metal Innovators

Industry Metal and Machining
Country North America
Number of Employees 100-500
Cobots used UR10e
Video - PMI, USA

How they did it

The BotX Welder is designed for easy implementation and teaching, combining extensive welding expertise and two years of development in collaboration with Red-D-Arc, Airgas, and Air Liquide. Rob Goldiez, co-founder and CEO of Hirebotics, says, “Universal Robots is a great choice for this platform to be built around for several reasons: one is that it’s an extremely open platform. It allows us to control how that robot performs from the cloud, and the new e-Series has unique capabilities in its built-in force torque sensor, which we heavily take advantage of to provide a better user experience for the end customer.”

That expertise now yields concrete results, including consistency that even manual welders can’t meet. PMI’s Larson says, “With the BotX robot system, the quality of the welds is great because you teach a weld to be in that specific spot, the weld’s going to be in that specific spot, It really takes the guesswork out of making sure you lay the weld down correctly.” Customers can teach BotX the required welds simply via the Hirebotics app on any smartphone or tablet utilizing welding libraries specifically developed for BotX.

“The Hirebotics team came in and within two hours they had it set up. Within half an hour, I was running it and teaching it and doing it all by myself,” says Shaun Bruce, PMI’s robotics and automation area lead. “I’m not a certified welder, but I’m able to easily just load a program, and I’ve got my tables mapped out in pictures, so I know where to put my tooling and my jig system, and I’m able to swap between parts within a matter of fifteen minutes,” he says.

Half the cost of manual welding

Half the cost of manual welding

Hirebotics delivers and sets up the system and all the customer has to supply is gas, wire, and their parts. After a risk assessment, no special guarding is required, and the company pays an hourly rate only for the time the robot is actually welding. “Compared to what an employee would get for their hourly wage, plus all their overhead costs, you’re probably saving half of what you would pay a normal welder,” estimates Larson.

Expanding work capacity

Expanding work capacity

The new welding robot system has already had an impact on the company’s ability to take on new jobs, despite the acute shortage of welders, Larson explains. “With the new BotX system, we can go out there and quote work we haven’t been able to quote before, because we know by the time we accept the PO, we can get a robot in here and ready to weld the parts before we even get the first order in the door.”

We selected the BotX robots due to the fact that they are collaborative robots and you don’t need a large guarding system around them. They’re very small, easy to use, very easy to teach. It’s a win-win package—it’s the future for doing small welds.

Erik Larson, VP of operations, PMI (Processes Metal Innovators)

Certified welding without the manual labor

Another significant benefit was PMI’s ability to get the BotX welds certified for customers who require this. “This now means we do not need to use certified welders to oversee the operation. As long as the cobot welder’s program is certified, any operator can tend the cobot welder. This really unlocks a lot of resources for us,” says PMI’s operations manager.

That’s possible because the robot and programmer are certified by welding inspectors, applying the same testing a human welder goes through for certification, using weld samples and destructive tests to certify the weld. Larson says, “With the new BotX system we can bring in one robot and run it for three shifts and not have to hire three welders, so if we needed 30 welders, we could have ten robots running. We do have to hire employees to run the robots, but now they don’t have to be skilled welders.

BotX was not PMI’s first experience with collaborative robots. Before the cobot welder arrived, Hirebotics had already deployed two UR10 cobots on PMI’s mechanical presses. The success of this first installation paved the way for new automation projects with cobots.Having the UR10 cobots tend the mechanical presses demonstrates how the cobots work hand-in-hand with employees. The cobot picks and places the parts on the line in synchronicity with human colleagues who feed the raw stock and pick up the finished parts for further processing at each end of the line.

Plug and play robotics increases small run efficiency

PMI also has traditional welding robots in house, but they require tooling fixtures that can take up to 16 weeks to be built. Especially for small-run parts, PMI found that the fixtures weren’t cost-effective. PMI’s Larson explains the difference with the collaborative BotX system. “The tables that the BotX robot comes with include clamping systems and everything you need to be able to just clamp your part on the table and shoot some pictures of it. You have a little diagram of it and every time you go to put that program back in, you can set your part up the same as you did before, so it doesn’t take a large fixture or an expensive fixture to do it. There’s no capital investment in it, and it’s just plug-and-play.”

In addition, any downtime on traditional robots could take up to two weeks to get a service tech to address. In comparison, the Hirebotics BotX system includes 24-hour service that responds with the touch of a button in the Hirebotics app. Larson says, “You go on your phone, you click the app, and they will reply.”

Increased staff availability for more complex welding projects

As in any weld shop, profit margin on the larger weldments is significantly bigger compared to small welds. “We can now reallocate our existing manual welders to handle the larger parts, while we’re still able to get the little parts done, says Larson. “So we’re not replacing anybody in our company with robots; we’re just moving people around to where they add most value.”

Larson has also found the robots appeal to younger workers, who are often hard to hire and retain in manufacturing jobs. He says, “We found out when we put these robots in and we were looking for a position to be the robotic and technology lead person that we had a lot of younger employees all interested in applying for that position because they like their phones and they like computers. It’s a big hit for the younger generation who wants to be into tech to be able to work and program robots.”

Customers can teach BotX the required welds simply via an intuitive app on any smartphone or tablet utilizing welding libraries created in world-class welding labs. A cloud connection enables 24/7 support by Hirebotics.
Customers can teach BotX the required welds simply via an intuitive app on any smartphone or tablet utilizing welding libraries created in world-class welding labs. A cloud connection enables 24/7 support by Hirebotics.

Automation challenges solved:

  • Ability to quote and perform welding jobs without adding existing staff in tight labor market
  • Existing staff reallocated to larger, more profitable welds
  • High mix/low volume welding now automated without developing time consuming, expensive fixturing

Key value drivers:

  • Fast setup
  • Easy teaching through a mobile app
  • Safe operation alongside employees with no guarding needed
  • No capital outlay
  • Immediate customer support

Tasks solved by collaborative robots:

  • Arc (MIG) welding, tending of mechanical presses

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