Plastic and Metal Welding
Cobot Welder Boosts Output Tenfold
A manufacturer of exhaust components had nearly given up trying to automate complex, manual welding processes—until it found cobots.
Eventually, DeAngelo hopes to equip each of its seven fabrication tables with a cobot. Photo courtesy Universal Robots
Mette McCall // Contributing Writer
Sixty-five days. That’s how far behind DeAngelo Marine Exhaust was on lead times at its worst point.
Based in Fort Lauderdale, FL—“the yachting capital of the world”—DeAngelo is known for producing aircraft-quality welds on marine engine exhaust parts. But demand for DeAngelo’s exhaust parts exceeded the capacity of the company’s labor-intensive production process. And, CEO Justin Montes had no luck hiring more manual welders.
“What we do here is custom fabrication at the highest level,” he says. “You’re not going to pull in a welder off the street and have him fabricating these systems.” That left the CEO to face his own worst nightmare: Letting down the finest boat builders, naval architects and engine companies in the world by delivering too late.
Montes explains, “That’s how I lose the account and never get it back. We were at an impasse, experiencing significant growing pains. We simply had to scale up, lower our lead times, lower our price, and increase our capacity. He had heard about these cobots coming out, and they seemed like a good idea. So, we started sending out parts to seven of the big robotic welding companies to see if they could do a demo weld.”
The results were underwhelming. A box of returned demo parts showed products with holes in the weld seam and irregular globs of molten metal. “They were all struggling to match our quality. When I contacted Universal Robots (UR), I was already three months into this and had almost given up,” says Montes.
UR referred Montes to welding partner Hirebotics, a company that has incorporated UR’s collaborative robots into the “The Cobot Welder:” a complete system that includes the UR10e cobot arm equipped with a welding torch, the Beacon app for teaching, a welding power source, and a versatile welding table to perform high-quality welds on a variety of workpieces.
Nobody at DeAngelo had experience with robot programming before the arrival of the Cobot Welder. “We still have World War II era machines running every day on our production floor,” says Montes. “So just the thought of a ‘robot’ would be enough to send some of our folks to a therapist. But, the ease of use is truly remarkable. Within 20 minutes of uncrating our cobot, we were running parts.” Photo courtesy Universal Robots
“At this point in the game, I really thought I was just wasting my time,” says Montes, as he recalls getting a text from Hirebotics’ co-founder, letting him know they had received his parts. Four minutes later, he got another text, this time with a picture showing the part, perfectly welded, no gaps.
“I figured this was too good to be true and that the entire text exchange was staged,” says Montes, who decided to fly up to Hirebotics in Nashville, TN, to see it first-hand. When he got there, he was able to use Hirebotics app-based interface to teach and run the Cobot Welder in just 20 minutes with no prior robotics experience.
“I was running parts like I’ve been running robots my whole life. After that, I gave them a PO, and we got the robot in here. And that’s when the fun started,” he says.
From 2 to 20 Inches per Minute
The Cobot Welder quickly enabled the company to catch up on lead times and reduce defect rates. “We went from being eight weeks over capacity back to baseline in a matter of days,” says Montes.
He attributes this accomplishment to the speed of the cobot that MIG welds 20 inches per minute compared to the 2 to 5 inches per minute when TIG welded manually. Montes runs his hands over a weave weld done by the cobot and says, “Any welder worth his salt would have a hard time believing this is a MIG weld. Once the operators started toying with the settings, we realized we could get the welds to look however we wanted them to: fat welds, skinny welds, butt joints, lap joints—we are even building fixtures to do seam welding. He also emphasizes the ability to dial-in the cobot to do full penetration welds.
“This was a very big concern for us. A leak could literally sink a $100 million yacht. But we have found no leaks by the cobot,” he says.
ROI After One Order
The day the Cobot Welder hit the floor at DeAngelo, the company received a large order from the Coast Guard. The parts were 12 inches in diameter, requiring five circular welds. “Perfect fit for the cobot,” Montes says, beaming. “We went from months to just days turning that order around. If I put dollars to it, with the departmental overtime and everything, that first order paid off my cobot.”
Montes explains how he was also able to shift large portions of the welding work from fabricators, the highest-paid employees in the shop, to the machine operators that now operate the cobot.
“Prior to the cobot, we would throw all the parts needed on a cart, and our fabricators would have to weld them all together,” he says. “Once the cobot was up and running, we created a pre-fabrication department where all these high-volume subassembly parts could get welded before they got to the fabricator. From a financial perspective, now that the welding is performed by a machine operator rather than a fabricator, our cost-per-part has plummeted.”
Production manager Camilo Aguilar (right) shows an operator how to teach the Cobot Welder. “The operators pick it up quickly when they realize how much easier and faster their job becomes,” he says. Photo courtesy Universal Robots
Winning Over Welders
When the Cobot Welder first arrived at DeAngelo, not everybody shared Montes’ enthusiasm. “We have all these great fabricators that see a robot in the building. So immediately the wall is up: ‘What is this machine?’ they would ask,” he recalls.
He explains how he had them run a few sample parts, and kept dialing in the welder until the welds looked right. That was a big “aha moment” for employees.
“These same people that were afraid of the cobot, they are now calling me on the weekends, suggesting new parts to run on the cobot,” says Montes. “You could see their brains just explode; now everybody’s embracing it. It’s been a big morale booster for our work culture.”
Stan Sherwin, one of the manual TIG welders at DeAngelo, explains how the cobot saves him time: “When the parts get to me, the subassemblies are already welded by the cobot and it makes it a lot easier, because I don’t have to try to maneuver it around in a tricky position. The welds by the robot look beautiful. And it’s a lot faster.”
Indeed, the cobot has enabled DeAngelo to let its skilled welders do what they do best. “Good fabricators don’t grow on trees,” says Montes. “They are our top-dollar people and they take years, if not lifetimes, to train to handle some of the complex fabrication that we do. With the Cobot Welder, we can free up our fabricators to focus on the the challenging tasks and have the cobot handle all the mundane, repetitive stuff.”
Camilo Aguilar, production manager at DeAngelo, was one of the employees who greeted the cobot with initial skepticism. “I really had my doubts. Air-cooled MIG welding on stainless steel and pipes? But I was wrong. To be honest, that’s an awesome machine,” says Aguilar, adding how he’s renamed the cobot “my baby.”
Though he had no prior robotics experience before the Cobot Welder arrived, the production manager is now the one teaching the operators how to run it. “The programming is not hard; our operators pick it up so fast,” he says.
As Montes put it, there was “no more writing 10-page programs in G-code or yearlong learning curves.” Instead, operators teach the robot simply by grabbing the robot arm and moving it through the desired weld trajectory, adding way points in Beacon, the Cobot Welder’s app-based interface that runs on any handheld device or tablet. “If you want to weld a circle, press circle, click three points—it knows that it needs to weld a circle along those three points. You want to do a line? Two points, it’s that easy,” explains Montes, who is working on fixtures that will enable the Cobot Welder to weld 25 to 50 products in the same cycle.
“That was the real game changer for me,” he adds. “Price, support, maintenance—those are all important factors to consider. But it would all be a waste to spend time and money acquiring a robot, only to have it sit unused because it’s too hard to operate.”
The Cobot Welder’s Beacon app provides production data in real time. Photo courtesy Universal Robots
Troubleshooting in Real Time
Having experienced long response times requesting tech support for the company’s CNC water jets and laser cutters, Montes was positively surprised by the quick replies he received whenever his team had a question about the Cobot Welder.
“Trouble-shooting on the cobot is amazing,” he says. “We run the programming off an iPad Mini, and there’s a support feature in the app, where you can get somebody on the line within seconds.”
He can also take pictures of the issues and submit them. “I don’t need to be a welder,” he says, “but I can send a picture and say, ‘Hey, is this the right setting?’ And in seconds, you’ve just eliminated being down for days if not weeks.”
A Six Sigma black belt and a self-professed “numbers nerd,” Montes emphasizes the production data provided by Hirebotics’ Beacon app. “I have access to all my production data anywhere in real time through the app,” he says. “Everything is a number; we can see how long the arc was on, how much gas and wire we used. And if it looks like Shift A is more profitable because they ran faster, we can copy those settings over to Shift B.”
DeAngelo is just getting started down the cobot path. Montes pulls out a map of the shop floor, pointing out fabrication tables where he envisions a Cobot Welder going. “Our goal is to have a cobot on all the fabrication tables of our seven lead fabricators. As they’re jigging parts up, making sure they’re hitting all their target points, they can have the cobot handle the welding in the meantime and just streamline everything.”
Jumping from welding 2 inches per minute to 20 inches per minute has also enabled DeAngelo to break into new markets. “When you’re dealing with big engine manufacturers, they don’t want to pay premium prices for custom-fabricated parts,” says Montes, explaining how he has to bring his costs and lead times down significantly to address that market and compete with manufacturers in India. “To break in [with those OEMs], we have to boost production up to 10 times, which is what the Cobot Welder has already helped us do.”
He adds with a smile, “Once more engine manufacturers figure out ‘Oh, DeAngelo can do this now,’ I won’t just need more cobots; I will need a bigger building.”
For more information on robotic welding, visit www.assemblymag.com to read these articles: