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Tormach robots help ‘triple’ welding efficiency of concrete company

The opportunity to automate a simple pair of tack welds on mild steel components was all it took to lead Advance Concrete Form of Madison, Wisconsin, on the path to robotic automation.

But given the unqualified success of this application, the company is keen to find new ways to automate at its busy headquarters.

In fact, Plant Manager Adam Wepfer is on the lookout daily for new ways to add efficiency to Advance Concrete’s daily operations at its primary facility. And the company’s Tormach ZA6 industrial robot has been a star performer in freeing the company’s skilled welders to perform more complex tasks.

Advance Concrete creates forms for pouring concrete foundations for residential and light commercial properties.

These forms, made from High Density Overlay plywood, run the gamut in size and shape, ranging in height from 2 feet to 10 feet, and are used to form basements, pilasters and other architectural elements. Forms can be stacked to make walls 20 feet tall and higher.

Critical to keeping these forms together is a corner-and-bar system that includes a rectangular mild steel component roughly 2 inches by 3 inches. A smaller 1 inch-by-2 inch piece is welded to that part with two precisely placed small tack welds of about 5 mm each.

A lever component is then bolted to the welded pieces; if the welds are placed too close to center, the lever will not rotate and holds the bars that keep the forms together.

The resulting 90-degree components with levers bolted on assemblies are then brought to the welding department to be joined to the form corners.

These forms might be used up to 200 times, depending on how they are cared for – so these welded components can be expected to endure significant strain.

Wepfer says: “Our corners allow you to put a 90-degree angle in your basement wall, for instance.

“These pieces are welded onto the corners, and the forms latch on to the corners. Every corner has two to seven of these pieces on it – so we go through a lot of these pieces every day.”

Advance produces tens of thousands of these corner system components annually. Prior to acquiring the Tormach ZA6 robot, it might have taken the company’s welders two eight-hour days to produce the required number of parts; a third welder would have to be added during busier periods.

On an overall staff of 15 to 20 employees, that is a significant chunk of talent and time to commit to a repetitive task ripe for automation.

Furthermore, while Advance also has facilities in Colorado, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Canada, anything that is welded comes from the welding department at its Madison headquarters.

Wepfer says: “I have a welder who can weld 900 of these pieces in a day.

“We designed a bigger jig so we can put more pieces into production than our welding department can – so the robot can produce about 150 of these every hour. This really helps us not have to put that third guy on this task. We’re not a huge operation, but we get a lot of product out the door.”

Not only is it a time-consuming task, but as has become all too common throughout manufacturing, finding and keeping an entry-level welder has proved more difficult with each passing year.

Wepfer says: “The corner system components are very monotonous to weld.

“Having a nonwelder be able to set up these pieces on our custom-made jig and have it weld frees up our skilled positions” to focus on more challenging assignments.

“Last year, just like everybody, we had a hard time finding help. Welders – that’s a really tough position to find — especially doing what we do.

“Most welders want to perform high-value work, but this is a very entry-level, elementary welding environment here because of what we make – they’re very simple things.

“If we can help reduce the most monotonous pieces and give our employees more satisfying opportunities, they stay more engaged that way. When employees come to work, they want to think.”

To automate this repetitive but vital task, Advance turned to Tormach’s ZA6 robot, which comes with Tormach’s free Python-based programming software called PathPilot.

This is the first time Wepfer has used a robot in a manufacturing environment – but the learning curve has not been daunting.

Wepfer says: “I don’t have a computer programming background, so Tormach really helped us get started – and I have been able to refine the code from there.”

And as Advance remodels its front offices to expand Internet access, automatic software updates will be enabled.

The operational efficiency the ZA6 robot has brought to Advance Concrete has made a big impression, Wepfer notes. “It’s kind of cool to see the amount of pieces that can be produced in a short amount of time. And, while the welder is welding, someone can set up the next jig and keep that welder going constantly.”

Operational- and cost-efficiency afforded by the ZA6 extends to limiting scrap material at a time when material is getting harder to acquire and costs more.

Wepfer says: “We can’t accept scrapped material as being OK. Our guys do a great job most of the time, but mistakes can happen. The robot eliminates some of the potential human error.”

And with space on the production floor always at a premium, the ZA6 has fit comfortably in Advance’s Madison headquarters.

Wepfer says: “It’s in a good spot. We had another welding station that we eliminated and put the robot in its place. It doesn’t take up that much room, which is nice. We’re pretty full with equipment here – but if it keeps working out as well as it has been, there is definitely room for more robots.”

Ultimately, in fact, “this has been our alpha-beta test to get more robotics into our production facility,” Wepfer concludes. “Everybody’s been very interested as they get a chance to come up and see the robot. There’s definitely a lot of questions – and a lot of excitement. Moving forward, robotics has huge possibilities for helping everybody on our team do their jobs.”

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