The manufacturing industry has been sounding the sirens for quite some time now: There’s a chronic shortage of highly trained welders destined to only get worse. The average age of these professionals is 55 and not enough young people are entering the field to replace them.
The American Welding Society predicts a shortage of more than 375,000 welders in the United States by the year 2023. U.S. shipyards are putting up billboards to recruit welders from neighboring states. Britain, which is planning to upgrade its aging nuclear energy infrastructure, is now facing a welder shortage as Brexit takes effect. An estimated 13 percent of its professional welders are citizens of other European countries.
In addition to investing more heavily in vocational education and training programs, robot welders are a promising solution to alleviate this specialized labor shortage. Hirebotics, an industrial robotic systems integrator based in Nashville, Tennessee, has developed BotX, a “skilled robotic welder-for-hire” that can be programmed to weld complex parts through a mobile app.
Partnering with Universal Robots and Airgas, Hirebotics recently unveiled the BotX Welder at the FABTECH trade show in Chicago. Like other Hirebotics automated solutions, customers can “hire” robot workers by the hour – via their Robots-as-a-Service (RaaS) platform – and not pay for when the machines are idle (subject to weekly minimums).
“What excites me is that we are helping manufacturers grow their businesses in a tight labor market,” says Hirebotics COO Matt Bush. “Europe is facing the same exact challenge that the United States is, and so is Canada and Mexico. It’s a generational thing more than anything else. Young people tend to want to do more techy jobs rather than do work that’s hot, dirty, grimy and dangerous.”
The BotX Welder robot is meant to augment a company’s workforce rather than replace it. While the BotX can be taught to handle routine parts and repetitive tasks, professional human welders are freed up to focus on higher value priority projects.
“There is a fear that people are going to lose their jobs when they see a robot coming in,” acknowledges Hirebotics co-founder Rob Goldiez. “I’d say that across the board our customers wind up with more (human) employees after the robots get there because they are filling jobs that they couldn’t fill before and are continuing to grow their business.”
Goldiez further addresses concerns about robots replacing humans in his recent blog post, “Keep Your Employees, Fire Your Robots!”
“Our Robots-as-a-Service business model opens up new possibilities for job shops and seasonal businesses that previously could not justify traditional automation,” he adds. “The cost and complexity to put in a system that was only needed for 3 or 6 months out of the year priced them out of the market. Not just for the robots, but for all the ancillary equipment, tooling and fixturing. So we came up with a system that’s easy to set up and implement quickly.”
One early BotX customer is KI, a global contract furniture manufacturer serving the business, education, healthcare and government markets.
At the company’s K-12 school furniture division in Wisconsin, the design and manufacturing team comes out with new product lines every spring and needs 300-400 desk and chair samples to send out with their sales reps. Traditionally, KI has been faced with the choice of hand welding all the samples or shutting down their mass production lines to recalibrate them for the small batch of samples. Because BotX units can be quickly reprogrammed for new jobs, they are ideal for manufacturing customers with a high product mix.
“The BotX Welder helps companies quickly address their seasonal demand,” says Bush. “The school furniture factory already has 30-plus robotic welders, but during their busy period of April to July they just don’t have enough capacity on them.”
“The great thing is that they can lay off our robots at the end of their busy season. And even though they might get different robots next season, all their programming is stored in the cloud so they can keep running them as if they never sent the robots back to us,” he adds.
It is recommended that a highly skilled welder set up each new part or product run before turning over the BotX to a non-welder to operate it. Another Hirebotics customer, which makes sheet metal components for a wide range of products, has been able to fill their previously unfilled second and third shift welding positions using BotX Welders. The technology also reduces human exposure to dangerous fumes.
The BotX Welder was 100 percent designed in Onshape, which Hirebotics has used since its founding in 2015.
“We initially chose Onshape because we are a cloud-driven organization,” says Bush. “Every software tool we use – whether it’s accounting, product design or AWS for our app development – is cloud-based. That’s just how we think. A salesperson recently reached out to me to pitch some on-premise software and I just laughed, ‘You mean you don’t have a cloud offering? We only do cloud.’”
“Having our product design tools in the cloud allows us to keep our IT costs down because we’re not trying to run servers here. It keeps our hardware costs down because we don’t have to buy elaborate engineering workstations. We’re running everything on Macs,” he adds. “Our company likes to do things differently and think differently. We love Onshape’s collaboration features and built-in PDM.”
The Hirebotics engineering team also values Onshape’s portability – the platform runs on any computer, tablet or phone (iOS or Android) – because they are frequently on the road installing robotic systems and training customers.
“Sometimes the time between designing an assembly and installing it might have been 6 or 8 weeks or three projects ago. So there are times with the customer when we’ll need to open up the model on our phone or laptop and take a look at why something isn’t working or how we can improve the product,” Bush says. “We’re always looking to make it better.”
To learn more about how Hirebotics uses Onshape’s SaaS product development platform to maintain its competitive edge, watch the video below: