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Growing Pains Automate Small Batch Production

What do you do when your master welders are taxed by increasing demand and no other expert welders are available?

Posted: February 8, 2008


What do you do when your master welders are taxed by increasing demand and no other expert welders are available? Here’s how one heavy machinery equipment manufacturer answered that question.

We manufacture attachments for heavy machinery equipment used in construction, demolition
and mining industry processes. During the past few years, our sales and production have grown
exponentially to the point that our manual welding process experienced growing pains.

This increase in demand taxed our staff of master welders. But unfortunately, fewer expert welders were available to hire due to a worldwide shortage of welders. To address these issues, we planned a new manufacturing facility and began researching our options for automating the welding process. We needed to find an effective automated welding solution to increase production, improve quality and enhance our employee working conditions.

Since our products range widely in size and shape and our inventory includes multiple part numbers with minimal quantities per part, our small batch production process did not lend itself well to standard robotic welding systems. We needed a solution that would accommodate working with various part sizes and shapes and could flexibly adapt to each part’s welding requirement. We needed the sort of solution that could reliably weld all of our large complex parts quickly and accurately, but require minimal robot programming time.

Extensive research made it apparent there was a lack of adequate fast automatic programming options that would minimize our down time. We knew we needed to automate, but with our high mix-low volume production line, conventional robot cell configurations and robot programming was not an option because it was too complex and time consuming.

We found few solutions that could handle our unique issues until we discovered the SmartTCP Robotic Welding Solution from SmartTCP (Farmington Hills, MI), a supplier of automatic welding solutions for complex fabrications in small batch production.

This is the only comprehensive welding system that provides the ease-of-use, speed and quality we were looking for without sacrificing the flexibility that our welding operations require. The hardware and software components produce a system for small batch production that allows extremely accurate, flexible and reliable robot welding at a much faster rate than other robot techniques being used today.

This system automates both the complex and tedious robot programming and the weld production. The hardware and software create a flexible and modular working envelope that allows us to efficiently weld any weld-able part. The hardware is composed of multiple industrial products from leading industry manufacturers, including a gantry system from Gudel Inc. (Ann Arbor, MI), a robot system, external axis motors, control technologies and positioners from KUKA Robotics (Clinton Township, MI) and welding power supplies from Fronius (Brighton, MI).

We are able to compose the system in multiple axes to give it the flexibility to weld a high variety of parts ranging in size, geometry and welding technologies. The base system is constructed of 9 axes (6 robot axes, 3 gantry axes), with additional manipulators of one or two axes as needed up to as many as 16 axes in two or more working zones. For higher quality and a faster welding process, the system’s best use is in an 11 axes configuration in each
working zone for in-position continuous welding.

We rapidly implemented this new system with a short learning curve. Our system was installed in three weeks and we went into production one week later, making it possible for us to realize its benefits in very short order. The automated system helped us address the worldwide shortage of quality welding experts, save on labor costs and shorten our welding times. We significantly increased our manufacturing capacity and improved our bottom line.

For example, we saw 2½ hours of manual welding on one part reduced to a 30-minute weld cycle using the automated system. On a more complicated part, the manual weld time went from 28 hours to 5 hours of robot welding plus 3 hours of manual welding time.

Overall, the system improved our time to market and increased our production volume and quality.


Large and complex metal products are fabricated partially by semi-automatic welding machines
and largely by the intensive labor of expert welders. Robots repeatedly perform welding operations efficiently and accurately with a consistent level of quality, and carry out tasks that are otherwise difficult or dangerous for expert welders. Widespread use of welding automation is currently implemented only for simple and repetitive fabrication, while in one-off and small batch production it barely exists.

The Problem

Robots must be programmed in order to act, and programming for one-off and small batch production is both complex and extremely time consuming. This has made production automation uneconomical and therefore irrelevant.

The Solution

Technological breakthroughs are moving automatic welding for small batch production from a virtual model to welding sparks in a short time. The newest systems present intelligent, robotic welding solutions for small batch fabrications. They are modular, flexible and automatic off-the-shelf manufacturing solutions that can be implemented in a wide range of manufacturing applications after a short setup.

Using a predefined three dimensional working envelope, SmartTCP systems can weld any large, complex assembly that fits within the working envelope, first time seen, in a short time. They turn welding robots into next generation smart machines by using software that analyzes approximation data imported from 3D CAD data files of the welding assembly model, automatically determines all the potential welding geometries and implements a predefined master technology that creates welding paths, via paths, robot configurations, and welding technologies.

All of this data is reliably programmed into a file up to 100 times faster than either on-line
or off-line programming techniques, then downloaded to the robot controller for execution.

Dan Tyrrell is the president of NPK Construction Equipment Inc., 7550
Independence Drive, Walton Hills, OH 44146-5541, 440-232-7900, Fax: 440-232-4382,

SmartTCP, 26602 Haggerty Road, Farmington Hills, MI 48331, 248-994-1041,

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