Unmanned welding day and night

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Twenty years ago, Lacom was one of the first suppliers to automate CNC machines with robotic loading. Now director Driek Lammers is doing the same in the welding department. This spring, Lacom put the first automatic welding line into operation. A cell with 72 pallet slots, a pallet changer and two welding robots. A concept for 24/7 unmanned robotic welding of single pieces and small series.

Text and photography: MTL Metal Magazine issue 5, 2022

Automation at Lacom in Budel was placed high on the agenda at a very early stage by Lammers. We are now reaping the benefits of this, he says. It ensures efficient production of parts, both for external customers and for the company's own Kinetic loading crane. This means that margins for the company, despite price pressure, are maintained. "Also, automation has made us more attractive as a company to employees. We attract better skilled workers. We find college graduates more easily because they can work with modern machines here. After all, innovation creates challenges." It is precisely these college graduates that Lacom needs because control is changing and the amount of engineering is increasing.

Own product is foundation

Last spring, Lammers took a new step on the automation front: Lacom welds complex assemblies 24/7. Not large series, but rather small batches or even single pieces. Together with Kumatech and Valk Welding, an automated welding cell has been built. The entrepreneur already had this idea years ago, but back then the technology was not that far advanced. Moreover, Lacom did not yet have its own product. Today they do have that proprietary product. Since 2020, Lacom has been building and selling Kinetic wheeled loader cranes under its own control. "The production of these parts lays a foundation for the investment in the welding cell," Lammers explains. The welding cell is partly filled with assemblies for the truck-mounted cranes. This is how he spreads and reduces risk. "And our subcontracting customers reap the benefits because we can produce more efficiently." Efficiency, quality and lead time are key words when it comes to this investment. But what about the cost price? Lammers knows better than anyone that cost price remains important for the subcontracting. "Since corona, however, we see a change among customers. Transportation costs are high, skilled workers are scarce - even in Eastern Europe - and customers are looking for delivery reliability. Once peace has returned soon, some of the work will certainly disappear again to low-wage countries, but more will be produced in the region," he expects. By 'region' in this context, he means Western Europe. Price no longer determines the work Lacom receives in orders; much more so are quality and delivery reliability.

Pallet locations for welding jigs

For these reasons, he made the move to the robotic welding cell. The cell consists of a 35-meter-long warehouse with 72 pallet spaces; half 1500 x 1700 x 1250 mm, the other half 3000 x 1700 x 1250 mm. Each pallet location can store up to 1500 kilograms of weight, and on top of the pallets are the welding jigs. A robot moves the pallets from the fixture unit to the warehouse and to the welding robots. The first Panasonic welding robot is now on the left; on the right side of the cell, everything is ready for the second robot. "As soon as production runs, the second robot will join it," says Lammers. "Then we can do at least 8000 welding hours a year, in an area of just 250 m2." With this, he points out one of the advantages of the robotic welding cell. He calculates: to make 8000 welding hours on an annual basis, 14 good welders are needed. With an average floor space of at least 30 meters per welder, he would have needed almost double that area. Besides, where do you get these 14 experienced welders?

### Constant quality

Incidentally, Lammers expects to make more welding hours with the welding cell than those 8000. In addition to the high number of welding hours, the automation also provides greater flexibility and constant quality. "We already see this in machining. By automating, we have much less rejects. Even in welding, we can now guarantee high quality." Lacom wants to leave the welding jigs for repeat products in the cell. The programs for that are ready. So the operator only has to insert the parts, which may already have been attached. With this method, the set-up costs are reduced to virtually zero. Lacom settles the jig costs either directly with the customer or over a pre-agreed number of products. Moreover, the robot welds faster than the experienced craftsman. "We weld large and complex assemblies, where the welder has to weld everything by hand. A product that takes a welder 4.5 hours to weld, the robot welds in less than 2 hours ánd we can guarantee better quality." Because pallets are changed automatically in the cell, Lacom can weld almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week. "Because we significantly increase the turnover rate in the plant, this gives us room to tap into new markets."

Welding and robot technology

The cell was developed and built together with system integrator Kumatech and Valk Welding. Lammers: "We have seen projects that both parties have realized together. That created trust. The welding technology is the existing technology of the Panasonic welding robots that Lacom has had in house for some time. "Valk Welding has developed it further by focusing on robotic welding which gives them a lot of capabilities." The cooperation with Kumatech is mainly based on mutual trust because the robotic welding cell at Lacom is special. In fact, for Kumatech it has also been the first cell they have built in this way. The robotic welding cell is equipped with all the features you can imagine for automated robotic welding. From changing six welding torches to double wire feed per robot, separate gases for each type of wire and with systems such as a weld seam tracking system, vision, etcetera. Once a product is released, all that is needed is the material in the jig and the rest is done automatic. But, Lammers says, the preparation has to be right. This type of welding requires precise parts. With automation in machining, he laid a foundation for this years ago.

Craftsmanship on the floor

Anyone who thinks that in such a highly automated factory the knowledge is concentrated in one place is wrong. Lacom chooses to keep the craftsmanship in the production, just as before in machining. "Then you are much more flexible than if you bundle all the knowledge in the work preparation. Otherwise the work preparation becomes the bottleneck. With us, the operators help think about how best to clamp and make a product." Each machine operator at Lacom can independently adjust programs as needed or fix a malfunction. The employees who work with the welding cell create their own welding programs. They do so in DTPS, Panasonic's offline programming software that Lacom has been working with for some time. This approach has both a positive effect on lead times and rejection rates, he notes. "With external programming, products often have to go up and down when the program needs to be adjusted; here they do it directly themselves." Because the experienced operators take the younger generation under their wing, knowledge of, for example, jig making or clamping is passed on. Knowledge transfer is a continuous process at Lacom. The investments Lacom has made in training young professionals are now starting to pay off. And by automating, the company can grow in terms of productivity without the need for a large flexible workforce. "Automation brings security for employees," Lammers says. "If the market should slump one day, we always keep work for the day. The robots are then stationary at night. That's how we keep the knowledge we have in house."

Lacom therefore continues to invest in automation. The next new automated machine is already there: the thirteenth Mazak Integrex with second RoboJob Tower. The cell is equipped with 3D measuring probes to check quality unmanned. Because without that quality, welding cannot be automated.



Jsme rádi, že spolu s vámi budeme moci hledat řešení vašich problémů týkajících se (svařovací) automatizace, svařovacích drátů a spotřebního materiálu. Dáváme přednost být vice partnerem než dodavatelem.