Dave, I, too, was surprised to hear that the robot costs less than an experienced welder. Of course, it still doesn't do everything an experienced welder can do. And, as you point out so clearly, the complexities of the automation process can get in the way of designing a better system.
Rob, you're exactly right, the overall COO is lower. Not only does the entire package cost less, including the robot itself, but the software gives engineers two options: program it yourself in an IDE or use the much easier point-and-click type interface for configuration and setup.
There is no doubt that automation delivers tremendous advantages to shops who employ it. My point is simply that automation brings with it a whole new set of manufacturing challenges. Is it worth it? Sure. But you are going to have to operate within the constraints imposed by the automated system, many of which you won't anticipate beforehand, no matter how hard you try. And if you have smart and innovative process engineers, they will constantly be going up against these constraints and trying to figure out how to "break" them in order to get even more out of the system.
I agree with Alex that many of these production floor advances are not getting the "air time" that they should. Couple the improved automation systems with tighter integration with enterprise software platforms like PLM and MES and you have a recipe for manufacturers to get tighter controls, better visibility, and wring more efficiencies out of their production systems.
It's interesting to see how advance robots, better pick-and-place systems, and improved cameras (machine vision) and camera interfaces are together working in concert to improve reliability on the production line. This is not a trend that's getting a lot of publicity, but when you go and visit plants, they're clearly getting good ROI on this stuff.
You make an interesting point, Ann, when you mention that robot solutions may work for smaller shops. I would guess that means the overall cost of ownership is less. It sounds like it is less not necessarily because the robot is less expensive but because the software is less difficult from a user point of view. Does that mean that set-up is easier? It also sound like the new software doesn't require the programming that previous software required. Is that it?
The fact that a fully-configured arc welding robot can be purchased for significantly less than an experienced welder makes in a year is pretty impressive. Of course, the price of robot itself is only part of the cost of setting up an automated welding cell. Also, automation imposes a whole new set of constraints on a manufacturing process, the consequences of which may not immediately be obvious.
For example, when I worked as a process engineer in highly-automated foundry, I came up with a way to reconfigure a mold which made four castings per pour so that it could make six castings per pour. This was a big deal - the number of pieces per mold was directly related to profitability, and this was a 50% increase! It would have represented over $1 million per year in increased profit.
The only problem was that I couldn't get six castings to fit into one of the totes which was used to carry the parts to the automated finishing cell. (Actually, I figured out a way to get them to fit, as long as they were loaded a certain way. But the way the process was set up required them to be randomly dumped into the tote. Loading them in an ordered way would have required an additional robot).
With human beings, this would be no problem - just train the operator how to load the parts, or else just tell him to put three of the parts in one tote, and three of the parts in another tote. But the automated system was set up such that one mold worth of parts had to go in a single tote! Re-writing the code to allow parts from a single mold to be split up between two totes turned out to be such a daunting task that none of the automation engineers - who were extremely talented guys, some of whom have since gone on to start their own company - was even willing to touch it.
Still, with the price of robots coming down, and increasingly user-friendly interfaces, it looks like automation will be making its way into more small-to-medium sized manufacturers.
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