Preventive Maintenance for Automated Welding


Third-Party Preventive Maintenance: A Smart Decision for Efficient Automated Welding
by Bob Steinke and Bob Rickel, The Lincoln Electric Company

Nothing throws off a manufacturing schedule as quickly or drastically as downtime from an unscheduled equipment failure. That’s why diligent, regular preventive maintenance, or PM, is crucial to the success and efficiency of any manufacturing operation.

As any plant manager knows, a good preventive maintenance program anticipates and prevents equipment failures. Such PM activities, including periodic inspections, parts replacement and equipment cleaning, are more than something that is “nice to do” or accomplished “when there’s time.” The fate and success of a plant’s operations can hinge on preventive maintenance, or the lack thereof.

Sensitive automated equipment, such as a robotic welding cell, for example, requires a targeted, routine preventive maintenance program to ensure proper operation and provide maximum in-service lifespan. An effective program involves a routine, systematic inspection, adjustment, lubrication, and replacement of components, as well as software upgrades and performance testing and analysis.

Most plant engineers and managers already know this. The dilemma is: What plant truly has the in-house resources and manpower to first develop a targeted program for automated equipment maintenance and follow-through with it on dedicated, regular basis? And, without these resources, how do you get started with a program, let alone achieve success?

                Dual Robot Cell with Turntable 

 Robotic Automation Application                

Benefits of outsourcing
That’s where outsourcing comes in. Working with third-party PM providers who service your equipment will allow your in-house maintenance staff to focus on their core competencies and leave the inspections, cleaning and maintenance to seasoned preventive maintenance experts who are well versed in automated welding equipment.

Think about regular automotive maintenance. While there are some people who enjoy changing oil and doing regular maintenance on their vehicles, most people would rather have the care serviced by professionals. They have specialized equipment that allow them to complete the job quickly and correctly. Shouldn’t you do the same for your robotic welding equipment?

The frequency and scope of any PM plan for automated components is dependent on the nature of the manufacturing operation and the plant environment. No two programs are the same. While equipment providers do offer suggested preventive maintenance guidance in their service manuals, these guides provide only an initial template for program development and execution and leave some guesswork if you’re not experienced with the nuances of the maintenance required.

When you engage outside preventive maintenance services, these experts will examine your operations and equipment, assess your manufacturing environment and help you determine the right course of action for your facility and your automated equipment.

Developing the best routine preventive maintenance program for automated welding systems depends on choosing a provider whose experience and process best suits your needs. Once the plan is in place, choosing the proper partner will help you keep your plant operational and also maximize its efficiency. There are several key points to consider when choosing the right provider for your needs.

 

              Tandem MIG Application

 Power Wave - Before

Power Wave After

               

Knowledge and experience
Essential in this evaluation is knowing what the service provider offers and what kind of experience the technicians have with automated welding equipment. Are they generalists or do they have specialized experience in your piece of equipment?

Simply put, there’s more to maintaining an automated welding power source than blowing the dirt out of it. For example, some methods of cleaning and degreasing are more effective for this application than others. Special processes are required to fully clean and degrease a power source exposed to months or years of shop environmental contaminants.

As such, many general service centers, as reliable and high quality as their work might be, don’t always understand how this type of equipment functions or how it needs to be inspected, cleaned and serviced.  It’s always best to work with experts who focus strictly on these machines than a company that services many kinds of equipment. PM specialists that focus on automated welding equipment know exactly how to care for such specialized equipment.

Also bear in mind that many equipment manufacturers can help recommend maintenance providers, and some even offer this service themselves, helping you to create and execute your PM plan. And, if you think about it, who better could do this than the company that designed and manufactured the equipment? Oftentimes, the employees at these centers have worked on the production line, designing and building the very machines they now service.

Maintenance techniques
Another question to ask is whether or not the service provider offers all of the services you need. Are they able to not only inspect and clean your equipment but also offer parts and repairs, computer diagnostics, service upgrades and weld testing on automatic equipment? Centers that strictly focus on automated welding system maintenance and repairs typically offer a turnkey approach to PM, providing a full range of necessary services.

The frequency and scope of any PM plan for automated components is dependent on the nature of the manufacturing operation and the plant environment. No two programs are the same. While equipment providers do offer suggested preventive maintenance guidance in their service manuals, these guides provide only an initial template for program development and execution and leave some guesswork if you’re not experienced with the nuances of the maintenance required.

When you engage outside preventive maintenance services, these experts will examine your operations and equipment, assess your manufacturing environment and help you determine the right course of action for your facility and your automated equipment.

Developing the best routine preventive maintenance program for automated welding systems depends on choosing a provider whose experience and process best suits your needs. Once the plan is in place, choosing the proper partner will help you keep your plant operational and also maximize its efficiency. There are several key points to consider when choosing the right provider for your needs.

One of the first things to ask a vendor is if the shop has proper testing, diagnostic and calibration equipment? Do they test the machines upon arrival to see what errors might have occurred during operation? A good PM provider will troubleshoot both welding robots and wire feeders using computer diagnostics and simulation of the robotic operations to identify potential areas of failure before they happen. 

              Maintenance Techniques

Next, investigate what processes they use to perform maintenance, cleaning and repair. A good shop won’t service a dirty machine and instead will disassemble and clean it first, using a proven washing and drying process. 

Environment-friendly degreasing is another must in this era of environmental regulations. Not all shops offer this benefit, so be sure to ask your prospective providers if the process they use is environmentally safe.

After-service testing
Perhaps one of the most important parts of any preventive maintenance program is the testing performed after cleaning. At many service centers, technicians simply power the machine up after maintenance to ensure it works. That’s as far as testing goes.

But, there is more to robotic welder maintenance than simply powering up a clean machine. The best providers will perform thorough testing on all robotic components to ensure the units are ready to go back on the line and do the job they are meant to do.

Also ask if the provider is able to update the equipment’s software to the latest version as part of their PM activities. The most up-to-date software keeps your production line running efficiently and smoothly and gives you access to the latest capabilities of the system. Potential upgrades might involve updated communication protocols for use with other plant equipment, faster communication between the welding system components or updates to the welding waveforms for specific applications. If you’re servicing the machine’s mechanical and automation components, you might as well also request a software upgrade for potential gains in productivity or operational efficiency.

 Power Source Software Upgrades                

Accounting for downtime
Another important question to ask any provider is what they can do to help you avoid downtime while a machine is offline for preventive maintenance. Do they offer rental services to ensure that you can remain operational even when you send your equipment in for servicing?

Rental programs allow manufacturers to stay online while a machine goes to a provider for routine service. Some preventive maintenance providers will provide free rent for the time the customer’s machine is in their shop, billing only for the time when the machine is in transit to and from the service center. Such an arrangement means you might pay rent only for a few days even if your robotic welder is in the shop for a month.

Making the call
While in-house maintenance might seem to be more efficient, for welding equipment in particular, it simply won’t yield the results necessary for optimal operation of these sensitive machines.

Your maintenance dollars will be better spent when you work with a provider who specifically focuses on welding automation maintenance and reconditioning, leaving your team to focus on what they do best – manufacturing. Additionally, when you outsource your PM needs, you can be assured that your equipment is in the hands of experienced professionals who understand how it works and how it needs to be serviced.

A good provider will take charge of your PM program and make sure you take all the necessary steps in implementing throughout your plant. So, identify your provider, make the call and start following an effective, lasting preventive maintenance program before equipment failure happens.

Bob Steinke is manager of Lincoln Electric’s Regional Automation Service Center (RASC) in Nashville, Tenn. Bob Rickel is a service technologist at the RASC.

              Fanuc Robotic Arm Service

 Power Source Repair                

Successful PM in action
The preventive maintenance team at Lincoln Electric’s Regional Automated Service Center (RASC) has cleaned and reconditioned more than 2,300 robotic welding machines and wire feeders since opening in January 2006. Automation maintenance is what they do, and they do it well.

“We maintain and repair only automated welding equipment. In fact, we believe we are the only strictly automated robotic welding equipment repair facility in the country,” notes Bob Rickel, service technologist at the Nashville, Tenn.-based center, which services equipment from manufacturing facilities across the country. “And, we’re likely the only repair facility that has a robot in house to test equipment after we’ve completed the necessary maintenance.”

The RASC is fully equipped to provide a variety of preventive maintenance, inspection, troubleshooting, repair, and redeployment services for Lincoln Electric Power Wave® and Invertec® STT® (Surface Tension Transfer®) welders, wire feeders, controls and associated automation equipment.

The 4,500-square-foot center offers unique services such as equipment cleaning and repairs, connection and weld testing on a robot, burn-in cycle (run at machines rated output), as well as robot service, upgrading, programming and operation training services. It also provides on-site FANUC® arc welding robot preventative maintenance, repair and training services.

“Because we’re a dedicated automation service center, we understand how the equipment is supposed to work,” says Bob Steinke, RASC manager. “That’s an important part of a PM program for robotic welding equipment. Some service centers don’t understand the peculiarities associated with automated welding machines compared to other pieces of equipment.”

Services are conveniently offered on-site at the customer location or at the state-of-the-art repair facility through freight delivery.

“We’re a one-day destination on most freight lines from north of Chicago, down into Texas and as far as the Atlantic. You put your welder on a truck, and in most cases, it should be with us in a day or two,” Rickel notes, adding that the center offers a rental program fleet of  Power Wave® welders for modest daily or weekly fees to keep customer downtime to a minimum. 

“We receive your machine and ship a rental to you. You only pay for the rental unit while we’re waiting for it to come back to us. You pay nothing while your machine is in our shop,” Rickel explains.

              Power Source Service

Recently, the RASC team announced it is expanding its facilities, doubling its shop space and adding additional work at test stations, as well as new staging areas for incoming and outgoing work.

“We expect to increase our throughput and even further decrease our already-quick turnaround time,” Steinke says. “We expect the new areas to be fully operational by this summer.”