Originally posted on The Fabricator.
Metal fabricators across the industry—in job shops, heavy machinery, shipbuilding, and structural steel—strive to meet demanding delivery expectations while exceeding quality requirements. They look continually for cost reductions, all while dealing with the ever-present issue of retaining skilled labor. The business isn’t easy.
Many of these concerns can be traced back to the manual processes still prevalent in the industry, especially when it comes to the fabrication of complex shapes like industrial vessel heads, curved structural steel components, and pipe and tube. Many fabricators spend 25% to 50% of their processing time on manual marking, quality control, and changeovers, while the actual cutting time—often performed with hand-held oxyfuel or plasma cutters—is only 10% to 20%.
In addition to the time such manual processes consume, many of these cuts are made around the wrong feature locations, dimensions, or tolerances, requiring significant secondary operations like grinding and rework or, even worse, scrapped materials. Many shops spend as much as 40% of overall processing time dedicated to this low-value effort and waste. All this leads to the industry’s push toward automation. One shop that automated a manual torch cutting operation for complex, multiaxis parts implemented a robotic plasma cutting cell and, not surprisingly, saw dramatic benefits. The operation eliminated manual layout, and a job that took five people six hours to complete now was done in just 18 minutes with the robot. While the benefits are obvious, implementing robotic plasma cutting takes more than just buying a robot and slapping on a plasma torch. If you’re considering robotic plasma cutting, be sure to take a holistic approach that looks at the entire value stream. Moreover, work with manufacturer-trained system integrators who know and understand plasma technology as well as the required system components and processes to make sure all requirements are integrated into the cell’s design. Also consider the software, arguably one of the most important components of any robotic plasma cutting system. If you invest in a system but the software is either hard to use or takes a lot of expertise to run, or you find it takes an enormous amount of time to adapt the robot to plasma cutting and teach a cut path, you’ve just wasted a lot of money. While robotic simulation software is common, effective robotic plasma cutting cells utilize offline robot programming software that will automate the robot path programming, identify and compensate for collisions, and integrate plasma cutting process knowledge. Incorporating deep plasma process knowledge is key. With such software, automating even the most complex robotic plasma cutting application will get a lot easier.