Why construction robots and cobots are the employees of the millennium
Now that robots have officially arrived do they truly come in peace?
THE NOVOARC COLLABORATIVE SPOOL WELDING ROBOT (SWR) IS AN IDEAL EMPLOYEE AND IT WILL ONLY IMPROVE WITH AGE AND UPGRADES. Although the SWR works longer, faster than any human can, human interaction is still essential element to its operations. Advanced automation technology helps it produce fast, efficient and repeatable quality welds every time. A built-in safety system ensures the SWR always operates within safe speeds, pressures, and eliminates the need for fencing around its workspace. If anyone, or anything, should bump the SWR while it is working, it immediately ceases all operations — a failsafe that is proven to make the SWR a safer employee than your average Joe. Yet for many skilled tradespersons, taking bumps is an implicit part of their job.
On any given day, human welders face hazards such as arc flash, carcinogenic fumes, UV lights, and excessive heat. Collaborative robots (cobots) like the SWR can significantly reduce wear and tear on a welding team while helping everyone work and breathe easier. The SWR’s efficiency cuts down the release of toxic gasses and its turnkey technology can extend the careers of welders who have lost hand skills, keeping their knowledge and standards in the trades. As alien as its technology may seem, the SWR was created to complement a workforce. Not conquer. If only it can convince all mechanical contractors that it truly does come in peace.
Robots ≠Cobots > Humans
Novarc’s Spool Welding Robot (SWR) is for the heavy-duty, continuous welding of pipes, small pressure vessels and other types of roll welding.
“Whereas industrial robots generally replace human workers and threaten their job security, collaborative robots work alongside operators,” explains Soroush Karimzadeh, CEO of Novarc Technologies, a Canadian-based robotics company specializing in the design and commercialization of collaborative robots for industrial applications. “(They) are capable of creating more jobs by allowing less experienced operators perform the tasks than can only be done by highly skilled workers. By using the SWR in the fabrication shop, the managers can redeploy their high-value labor to other key projects, while lowering the cost of their roll welding operations.”
Designed for in-door fabrication shops, the SWR enables more than 90 percent arc-on time, increasing production 200-300 diameter inches per day.
“Customers we typically talk to are facing a huge shortage of welders. It is very difficult to recruit and retain such a skilled workforce (welders) in this tight market,” says Karimzadeh. “The labor issue is projected to only get worse as many skilled welders are close to retirement and fewer millennials are being trained to fill this gap.”
Robotics will have a significant impact on the world in the next five to 10 years. A Research and Markets forecast anticipates that the global cobots market will grow from $175.5 million in 2016 to $3,811.483 million by 2021, at a high compound annual growth rate of 85.08 percent over the forecast period.
What’s more is robots are demonstrating increases in productivity growth, GDP and creation of new high-skill jobs. A recent report from the Centre of Economic Business Research found that robots have a greater positive impact on the economy than information technology, contributing 1/10 of the GDP growth in select OECD companies.
Using STRATUS, a virtual design and construction solution built on the Autodesk BIM 360 platform, SWR users can transition weld data from construction models and further enhance its capabilities as a shop fabrication tool. The SWR allows an operator with no knowledge of robotic programming to react to pipe variations and modify weld parameters in real time. Operators get a clear view through the Human Machine Interface (HMI) as each weld progresses.
“In some cases the competitive advantage is in delivering projects on time or even in time to ensure end-user satisfaction and the only way to do it economically is to invest in automation technologies,” says Karimzadeh. “In addition, customers are looking to get a competitive advantage through technology, increasing their capacity to bid on bigger projects while lowering their cost to win bids without having to increase their headcount dramatically.”
Novarc’s collaborative Spool Welding Robot (SWR) is a collaborative robot designed to work alongside a human operator/welder. It combines advanced automation technology with human input to produce fast, efficient and repeatable quality welds. novarctech.com.
Pitt Meadows Plumbing & Mechanical Systems — a mechanical contracting company serving greater Vancouver, Canada — recently purchased an SWR to step up its production and quality.
“This technology from Novarc brings a new level of quality and consistency with every weld as well as an embedded video of the weld into the BIM model,” says Steve Robinson, president of Pitt Meadows. “At Pitt Meadows Plumbing we are always looking for ways to improve the quality of the product as well as to provide an embedded QA/QC report on every joint.”
Next, Novarc has plans to enhance its SWR system with machine learning and machine vision to improve upon the SWR’s ability to make recommendations and learn from its work experience. Still, working beside a human operator will be essential.
“Welding requires a high level of skill and knowledge, so we don’t see robots that can fully automate the entire welding process for high-mix low-volume production anytime soon,” Karimzadeh says. How soon is “soon” is a million-dollar question for the skilled trades.
Building A SMART Workforce For Smart Machines
The International Training Institute (ITI), headquartered in Fairfax, Virginia, provides training to 148 training facilities in the United States and Canada for union sheet metal workers in the HVAC industry and welding.
Jointly sponsored by the International Association of Sheet Metal Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA), there are nearly 15,000 apprentices currently learning and working in ITI’s four- and five-year programs.
As ITI’s administrator, James “Jim” Page, is tasked with making sure those programs reflect the processes and technology real-world mechanical contractors and sheet metal shops are using today. Lately, a big part of his work is focused on robots and automation.
“With the training fund, it is our responsibility to recognize where the robotics are being applied to our industry. The industry being HVAC installation or some level of industrial welding, repetitive action that in the bigger picture might be replaced with robotics that can run 24/7,” says Page, a more than 30-year veteran of the HVAC industry. “So it’s ours first to understand what goes on in a shop. When that happens, we investigate that shop to see how they are doing it.” Then ITI creates a curriculum around training apprentices on that system.
“We don’t try to judge a technology’s usefulness, necessarily. But, if we know that a shop is doing it, it’s typically an action that’s going to evolve. It’s going to become more efficient,” he says. “So then it goes on to what we need to train to make sure that that is a SMART job — someone who is able to program that device and is well read into how that software operates so that you can achieve maximum usage on the device. Then possibly anything and everything related to the maintenance of that device.”
Labor often shifts with the introduction of new technology, Page explains. Rarely does it disappear.
“In the shop production side, if it takes three welders to get it done and part of the process being done by two of those welders is a repetitive process, that process could be put into a jig and could be performed by a robot,” he explains. “A knowledgeable person who understands the programming and understands the welding side, can operate it. Because you’ve got to know all the different steps of the type of weld you want to have so that the individual doing it knows what he’s programming on that keyboard. Or you’re going to get a weld but it may not be the weld that you needed to have there.”
“The BotX Welder doesn’t require expensive, dedicated fixturing and robot experts on the scene,” says Erik Larson, vice president of operations at PMI LLC in Wisconsin.
What happens to the other two guys? “Well, an ongoing need that we have is people in the field that weld,” says Page. “So in a case like that, if the process in the shop isn’t going to expand to put each of those individuals on an individual device, those actual workers with skillsets would go out to the field possibly and fill the gaps that are out there that we are currently seeing.”
Last year, at Fabtech in Chicago, Illinois, the “for-hire” BotX Welder made its debut. Developed by Hirebotics and utilizing Universal Robots’ UR10e collaborative robot arm, the BotX enables manufacturers to automate arc welding on small batch runs not feasible for traditional automaton. The main selling point to the system being, there is no capital investment. No installation costs, and cloud monitoring makes it so manufacturers pay only for the hours the system actually welds.
Shaun Bruce, robotic and automation area lead at PMI, programmed the BotX Welder in just half an hour. hirebotics.com.
“You can hire and fire BotX as your business needs dictate,” says Rob Goldiez, co-founder of Hirebotics. “Many people didn’t believe that collaborative robots could perform such heavy-duty tasks as welding,” he says. “We realized the need of a solution for small and medium sized metal fabricators trying to find welders.”
The BotX system includes a Universal Robotics UR10e cobot arm, cloud connector, welder, wire feeder, MIG welding gun, weld table, and configurable user-input touch buttons. The customer provides wire, gas, and parts. A 24/7 cloud connection enables support by Hirebotics, and customers can teach the BotX required welds using an app on any smartphone or tablet.
“With Universal Robots’ open architecture, we were able to control, not only wire feed speed and voltage, but torch angle as well, which ensures a quality weld every time,” says Goldiez. “The fact that (Universal Robots) are collaborative and don’t require safety fencing like traditional industrial robots means a smaller foot print for the equivalent working space, or put another way; less floor space to produce same size part. The collaborative nature of the solution enables an operator to move between multiple cells without interrupting production, greatly increasing the productivity of an employee.”
PMI LLC, a steel manufacturer and metal fabrication job shop in Bloomer, Wisconsin, is one of the BotX’s first customers. Utilizing the BotX’s “for-hire” system has enabled the company to stay on track of its production during an industry wide shortage of labor that has hit its state particularly hard.
“A large order would mean, we need to hire 10-15 welders to fulfill it – and they’re just not out there,” says Erik Larson, VP of operations at PMI. “Therefore, we would no bid contracts on a regular basis. With the BotX solution, we now quote that work and have been awarded contracts, so it has really helped grow our business.”
PMI’s existing operators handle the day-to-day control of the BotX, which welds a variety of smaller product runs. The shops frequently used weld programs, for more than 50 different parts, are stored in the BotX app.
“We are now able to deliver quality equivalent to what we could accomplish manufacturing with very expensive tooling (that is) typically used with higher-volume part runs,” explains Larson. “Being able to simply hire the BotX Welder, and quickly switch between welds by using our smartphone — and only pay for the hours it works — is huge for us. It took our area lead, who had no prior robotics experience, half an hour to teach it how to weld the first part.”
Customers can teach BotX the required welds simply via an intuitive app on any smartphone or tablet utilizing welding libraries created in world-class welding labs. A cloud connection enables 24/7 support by Hirebotics.
To operate the BotX Welder, dedicated fixturing is not required and welds are certified as long as the cobot’s welding program is certified. “This now means we do not need to use certified welders to oversee the operation. As long as the cobot welder’s program is certified, any operator can tend the cobot welder. This really unlocks a lot of resources for us,” says Larson.
Still, no matter how turnkey a robotics system is, there must always be a place for skilled, informed labor to ensure quality, says ITI’s Jim Page.
“Robots today typically are designed to do repetitive actions in a fixed jig operation, so you still have to have that quality skilled labor, and there are a ton of jobs out there right now that we need a skilled labor force to do that work,” he says. “Robots cannot do everything.”
In the robotics industry, the answer to “robots cannot do everything” has been exoskeletons, wearable electromechanical, augmentative devices that enhance the physical performance of humans with robotics. Such is the idea behind products like Levitate’s AIRFRAME, which transfers the weight of the arms from the shoulders, neck and upper back to the outside of the hips, evenly distributing energy to reduce stress with support.
According to ABI Research, global Exoskeleton revenues will reportedly reach $5 billion by 2028 with hundreds of thousands of active exoskeletons being deployed.
“We have to just keep an eye on it. We have to stay in touch with it,” Page says about new technologies in order to understand how they may change labor distribution. “I think that today’s worker needs to be encouraged to embrace the technology. Because of its expanding role, he or she may find themselves in some new mechanical setup that allows them to perform their work in a more ergonomically environment.”
Boston Dynamics’ Spot Robot platform with a Trimble X7 3D scanner.
Page is a dyed in the wool tin knocker. He completed his apprenticeship training in 1984 at Sheet Metal Workers Local No. 108 in Los Angeles. He earned his associate degree in sheet metal apprenticeship technology from Ivy Tech College and his associate degree in liberal studies from Long Beach City College. For him, the future of skilled labor and robotics are two complementing forces. Contractors trying to pit those forces against each other puts the entire building trades industry at risk of losing valuable knowledge.
“As new technology has progressed, one of the things we’ve seen out there is: ‘I understand what I am programming. I know how to program it. But what I don’t understand is what I am actually creating and whether it is right,’” he explains. “We have the ability with our 20, 15, 10 years of experience to identify something that is wrong. A person who is not trained, whose skillset is not trained, would not have that ability.
So you can sit there for a couple of days and program a week’s worth of work, 24/7, and it can all come out wrong. The individual may have understood what buttons they were pushing, but they didn’t have the knowledge and the skillset to identify that what is in there is incorrect.”
Page adds, “This is why we say, when you bring skilled labor and you repurpose it into embracing the new technology and working with that machine, you’re also gaining insight from their skillset. They actually could offer knowledge on their side to help that shop run more efficiently. They also could offer knowledge on that piece of machinery to help it evolve to a more efficient device. You’re not going to get that out of somebody who is textbook smart, who doesn’t have the field experience, but knows how to program in the buttons.”
Robots & Autonomous Autonomy
In the autonomous vehicle industry, a race is already underway to see who can best apply the technology to the building construction trades. Built Robotics recently secured $33 million in funding for its work transforming construction equipment – including excavators, bulldozers and skid steers – into fully autonomous robots. On a smaller more analytical scale, Trimble, Hilti and Boston Dynamics also recently announced plans to collaborate on the development of a “proof-of-concept” solution that explores the integration of Trimble’s and Hilti’s construction management software solutions, GNSS technology and reality capture devices with Boston Dynamics’ Spot Robot platform.
Equipped with Trimble’s and Hilti’s reality capture devices as its payload and directly communicating with a cloud-based construction management application, the Boston Dynamics Spot Robot will be able to provide consistent output, deliver improved efficiency on repeatable tasks and enable up-to-date as-built data analysis.
“Utilizing robots for routine tasks in hazardous environments to improve safety, efficiency, and data capture consistency is part of our digital transformation vision” said Aviad Almagor, senior director for mixed reality and brain-computer interface (BCI) at Trimble, in a press release about the partnership between the three companies. “We are excited for this latest collaboration and looking forward to the potential integration of our hardware and software solutions with the Boston Dynamics’ Spot Robot to enhance field-oriented workflows, reduce amount of rework and facilitate on-site tasks.”
The Spot Robot’s autonomous, terrain-agnostic capabilities work well in a construction or job site environment. The robot is able to bypass obstacles and maintain its defined path to accomplish routine tasks such as site scans, progress monitoring, asset management and remote support. Trimble and Hilt’s payloads and cloud application support provide multi-directional communication to enable a continuous flow of information and close the loop for the construction environment.
“Trimble’s and Hilti’s domain knowledge, market leadership and technologies are a great fit for our robotic platform,” says Michael Perry, vice president of Business Development at Boston Dynamics. “Deploying an integrated solution in the real-world environment doing dirty and dangerous work, before, during and after the construction stage is a common vision for the three companies, which can help drive the transformation of the construction industry.”
Levitate’s AIRFRAME exoskeleton transfers the weight of the arms from the shoulders, neck and upper back to the outside of the hips, evenly distributing energy to reduce stress. levitatetech.com.
New scientific method
As new tech hardware transforms the physical structure of the construction industry, software-based systems such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are transforming the mind. During a discussion at last year’s Fabtech titled “Applying Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to Metal Shop Processes,” Tanjo CEO Richard Boyd explained why it makes sense now more than ever for the sheet metal fabrication industry as a whole to start reimagining its scientific method.
“I think it’s really critical for every company today, every university, every government, even individuals, to think about the activities that we are doing,” says Boyd, using this thought process to determine what activities make sense for a human or a machine to do. “What should we be doing with human effort and intention, continue to do that because humans are still pretty good at specific things, especially when it comes to building on site kinds of fabrication. Machines aren’t going to be good at that for some time. But there are elements of that that you should be turning over to machine effort and intention to automate or semi-automate.”
Headquartered in Carrboro, North Carolina, Tanjo advises businesses and manufacturing industries on process improvements through the introduction to machine learning. When applied to sheet metal fabrication, machine learning can be used to make sense of the heaps of information and growing number of sensors in metal shop production to help shops determine solutions more quickly.
“The old scientific method was, let’s get together and come up with a hypothesis. Then you designed a bunch of experiments; go try to test out those ideas; then you end up with a thesis or a maybe theory,” says Boyd. “The new scientific method with machine learning is you take all your big data, dump it in there and say, ‘Machine, come up with every hypothesis that might be true, how can you help solve for this, and show me new ways to solve that problem.’”
He adds, “Currently it takes something like 20,000 hours to design something, have it be turned into requirements analysis, requirements for training, and then finally turned into training materials. How do we get that to 10,000 hours?” Tanjo is currently working on a system to compress that time to 200 hours, says Boyd.
“Think about the ripple effect that has across all these complex systems by just taking machine learning systems and training it on those elements,” he says. “And that’s where I think there is a tremendous amount of opportunity, especially paired with some multiplayer simulation or training that can show teams of people how to build that on-site custom HVAC system in a building. We know there is a lot of sweet spots in there that we can attack with machine learning to compress those time frames,” moving the entire skilled trades industry forward in the process.
This story originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of SNIPS magazine.