The benefits and challenges of robotic welding and welding fume extraction

Robotic welding has gone from being an almost exclusive feature of the automobile industry to becoming an increasingly popular standard solution within a wide variety of industrial sectors. It is a technology that comes with many significant benefits, yet also a number of challenges; one of them being the issue of fume extraction.

What is robotic welding?

The industrial robots involved in the process of robotic welding are articulated devices, equipped with arms, which are usually mounted on some form of axis allowing them to move and adjust themselves as required. The robot has been programmed to perform its duties, meaning it is fully automatic and in need of very little supervision from a human controller.

General Motors were in many ways the pioneers of robotic welding, as they began to use this technology in their American factories already in the early 1960's. Other companies in the automobile industry followed suit, and by the 1980's, robots were used extensively in car manufacturing. Since then, the number of industrial robots has increased enormously, as has the number of sectors where robots can be employed. Welding does however remain a key segment, with approximately
>80% of automobile industry welding today being performed by robots.

The past few years in particular have seen significantly lower prices on industrial robots, meaning that more companies have started using them in their production facilities. The volumes of robots being produced, combined with a general trend of technology steadily becoming cheaper and more accessible, only adds to this development. One example of this is
the rise of China as a major producer of robots, which has brought considerable competition to a market previously dominated primarily by German and Japanese companies. Substantial Chinese state investments are being made in the country’s robotics companies, leading to the number of such companies (currently several hundred) tripling in China in the last few years alone.

Advantages of robotic welding

In addition to robots themselves having become cheaper over time, they will be also cheaper than human labor in a longer perspective. Even so, there are situations where a human welder is preferable. For certain individual welding tasks – those that tend to happen on a one-off basis, or which require a series of specific actions that are hard to predict – using a human welder will likely be the better option, as programming a robot to do a very particular task once or rarely is generally too time-consuming to be worth the effort.

As such, robots and humans tend to perform different welding tasks and complement one another, with the robots typically relieving the human workers of the heavier and more demanding and monotonous tasks. As far as more repetitive welding tasks are concerned, however, robots tend to be very efficient and accurate
. They can also facilitate the process of scaling up production.

On-torch fume extraction and its alternatives

Welding creates various hazardous metal fumes which, ideally, should be collected as close to the source as possible. The method most commonly used by Nederman is so-called on-torch welding fume extraction. The fume extraction collector is connected to a flexible hose through which the fumes are passed on to a filter. The fume collector is placed next to the welding torch on the robotic arm, absorbing the fumes emitted by the torch.

While this method has proven to be very successful, it cannot always be implemented, and there are challenges that come with it too; making sure that the fume extraction equipment neither interferes with the torch nor inhibits the movements of the robotic arm, for example. If the torch is facing upwards, the hot fumes – which will also rise – need to be sucked downward and collected below, which is a more difficult process than collecting them as they rise from the welding flame. Also, the suction from the fume collector must not be so strong that it extinguishes the welding gas and disables the torch. One has to look at every single welding process individually in order to decide if the on-torch method can be used or not.

If the on-torch fume extraction method (which generally is the method of choice) cannot be applied, one has to work with the robot’s environment. One option is to put the robot in a confined space from which the fumes can be extracted.

Fume extraction awareness has not kept pace with technology

While the awareness of robotic welding and its potential is relatively widespread in most major industries, the need for proper air filtration is much less well-known. Companies manufacturing robots – even for welding purposes – rarely equip them with proper air filtration technology. It is an area where we need to do more to raise awareness, and where there is a lot of potential for a variety of fume extraction solutions. Most of the time, system integrators will design the production system and decide on what robot to use in a certain application, integrate it with the welding and filtration equipment, and program the robot to perform the tasks and movements required of it. Many of these system integrators are partners of ours, and are able to customize solutions for customers. At Nederman, we are also continually customizing our products in accordance with the latest filter technology, and we are proud to be recognized as a global leader in the field.

Robotic welding in the years ahead

Given the potential of this technology, and its considerable advantages, robotic welding is likely to become more and more common. Robots are continually getting both cheaper and more capable, and the quality of their welding is high, consistent and improving still. The awareness of the health hazards that may arise from welding fumes is also growing, making air filtration an important and natural part of the overall robotic welding system. System integrators are also making it easier for companies to adopt automation in their factories, primarily by creating integrated solutions that are easy to program and install. In the future, companies will likely be able to buy complete standard solutions where robots can easily be installed in an industrial environment without the need for a lot of specific engineering at individual workstations. Some of the industries that probably stand to benefit the most from robotic welding are the heavy vehicle (airplanes, trains, buses) and mining equipment manufacturing industries.

Feel free to contact me if you want to know more about Nederman’s work in this area, or about what fume extraction options we are able to offer your company. For more articles on our work in air filtration and sustainable environmental technology, please visit our website and read the other articles in our knowledge center.