Not Ready for Robots (in High-Stress Structures)

Robots may soon dominate the service industry. But heavy industry still requires welding skills only humans possess.

“Robots weld. They don’t think.” Wärtsilä Inspection Manager Raimo Mäki-Reini succinctly delivers his verdict when asked how quickly the robots will begin welding structures for his company.

How soon robot overlords will put humans out of jobs has never been a more popular topic in the mainstream media. In the service industry, it’s predicted that by year 2030 between thirty and forty-seven percent of humans will be replaced by robots. But welding is a different story.

Robot flaws
Steel base plates which house Wärtsilä ship engines and generators can weigh 32 tons. Add an engine and they weigh over hundreds of tons. This is not yet a job to entrust to robots. “I was amazed in the visual inspection,” says Mäki-Reini of the times he’s inspected robot work. “What beautiful welds! But when I broke them open they were terrible. Robots don’t notice air gaps.”

Tolerances are tight in Wärtsilä’s business. Material tolerances for welded plates are +/- 0.5 millimeters; cutting tolerances +/- 2.0mm; assembly +/- 2.0mm; and expansion tolerance +/- 5 mm. “A robot can’t handle all of these,” says Mäki-Reini. “I’ve inspected nine suppliers who use robots and I’ve rejected all but one. The one I accepted made assembly planning, and they welded only the clear areas with a robot — only about half of the total welding job.”

“Manual welding, like Fortaco does it, is the only possible way of working to get the quality level Wärtsilä requires with the highest stress structures,” says Mäki-Reini. “However, Fortaco does use robots to do small parts of the larger job in areas where a robot can excel.”

A robot future?
Mäki-Reini does not totally dismiss robots but believes if they’re to have a future working for Wärtsilä, then good communication will be part of that solution.

“If you want to use robots, then step one is better defining where a robot can weld and where it can’t,” says Mäki-Reini. “Step two: program it so well that the robot can weld tough parts like the corners. Step three is better cutting control.

Perhaps the tolerance should be +/- 0.5mm and not 2 mm.” But tightening tolerances is not only tough — it also causes increased costs.

Whether robot welders will ever replace humans in large part depends on the development of a machine eye. “If we can give it clear requirements for what it must see, then it can determine what’s okay and what’s not okay. After that, however, you need an adaptive system. And then after that you need control, checking the work. You need a robot to do the control if possible. There is no equipment for that today.”

Wärtsilä is currently working with a company in Germany which makes machine eyes for automotive manufacturing. “But our situation is more complicated,” Mäki-Reini says. “Automotive robot welding tolerances are in centimeters. Ours are in fractions of millimeters.”

Humans rule (for now)
For the foreseeable future humans will rule the shop floor. “We have great manual welders and Fortaco is one of them,” says Mäki-Reini. “The secret to great welding is good routines to control process and clear requirements to the floor. When that’s done right the result is satisfactory. The result is the most important part.”

Mäki-Reini says if there’s one human challenge to address it’s creating welders themselves. “Young people don’t want to weld anymore” – he makes a gesture of typing on a keyboard to show the type of jobs the young prefer. “We could lose all our welders in 20 years, so our challenge is to improve robots to the point they can weld high-stress structures.”

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Fortaco at BAUMA Exhibition

BAUMA exhibition collects together professionals in construction, building materials and mining machinery industries.

Exhibition takes place in Munich 8 – 14 April. BAUMA in Germany is the world’s largest meeting place with 0.6 million visitors.

This is the second time Fortaco participates this most important marketing event of the year. All our business areas, Fortaco Technology, Steel Fabrication, Vehicle Cabin and Vehicle Assembly will be presented at the show. You can meet our team of professionals at Fortaco stand 403 in Hall A6. We are there from Monday to Sunday 8 – 14 April.

Reserve time already now in your calendar, and make sure you are on the map what happens in this industry!

Business Site Wroclaw - professional manufacturing partner for steel components

Business Site Wroclaw produces key components for our world-class customer products. These components are used in the most demanding applications and environments. Every day, we are challenged to improve our product performance, reliability, costs, and time to market to meet the customer requirements of tomorrow. At Wroclaw factory, we are specialized in selected key components that weigh up to 15 tonnes. We are continuously investing in the latest technologies and high competence in order to respond to our customers’ needs on the market, and to meet productivity and capacity requirements.

During the recent years, Fortaco has invested extensively in the new production machinery and welding automation. The capacity of robot welding has been continuously increased to ensure productivity and to keep business growing also in the coming years.

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The Welding Inspector - Bad Guy or Consultant?

How to make the grade as a Wärtsilä supplier – and how to remain one.

Approximately 100 days per year, Raimo Mäki-Reini is on the road visiting more than 40 different countries around the globe. He’s not a tourist: if you happen to find him at the Eiffel Tower, it’s probably because he’s curious about the quality of the welding.

Mäki-Reini works for Wärtsilä, and he’s mostly found on factory floors where he inspects, consults, advises, and trains. He’s there to decide which suppliers qualify to weld structures for Wärtsilä, the Finnish corporation which manufactures and services power sources and equipment for the energy- and marine markets.

A thousand suppliers?
Mäki-Reini works in Wärtsilä’s Energy Solutions division where they build engines for power plants to power cities and heavy industry. Although Wärtsilä has 18,000 employees in 70 countries, it concentrates on engines and buys in most non-moving and welded parts from suppliers. Mäki-Reini doesn’t know exactly how many suppliers Wärtsilä has but estimates there are likely more than a thousand. He shows a visiting journalist a map charting Wärtsilä suppliers. The world, reduced to the size of his laptop’s screen, looks as if it’s suffered a measles outbreak: there are dots everywhere, sometimes on top of each other.

The quest for quality
Over millions of cycles, Wärtsilä engines vibrate and turn on their base plates. The welding in the base plates must be near perfect: any defect will cause cracks. Yet since base plates weigh tens of tons, they are preferably welded locally in the faraway lands where the power plants are constructed. It’s to Wärtsilä’s advantage to use as many local contractors as possible, but not every supplier can meet Wärtsilä standards. It’s Mäki-Reini’s job to find those who can. He visits every current and potential supplier about once per year. “I have a quality capability checklist,” he says. “If a supplier meets a minimum 70 percent of the criteria then they can be accepted with some corrective actions. 80 percent is considered ‘good.’”

The news isn’t always positive. Mäki-Reini holds up a document far enough away that the journalist can only make out red and black text. The journalist leans in for a closer look but Mäki-Reini pulls it away. “Sorry, top secret,” he says. The journalist notes that there is a lot of red on the page. “Would it be fair to say that half of potential suppliers don’t make the cut?”

This year 70 percent of those inspected have been approved. “It’s a very good year,” Mäki-Reini says. “Last year it was only 55 percent.” He’s pleased the number is so high but notes that the relationships aren’t necessarily forever — suppliers can be cut. Quality sometimes falls when a company’s management changes. “In 2014 we had a supplier that was selling us steel structures. But when I visited in 2017 they had a new managing director who wanted to save money. They’d fired the welding coordinator, maintenance was poor, and they met only 56 percent of our requirements. I had to reject them.”

Welding is art
“Welding is an art,” says Mäki-Reini. In order to make money, the supplier needs quality at what Mäki-Reini terms “the correct level” — not too poor, but not too good. “We don’t waste money on perfection; just fulfill the requirements.”

Visual inspection results may be fine but a destructive test is conducted – a fillet weld test piece is broken to make sure the root has melted. “Welders have to follow the WPS [Welding Procedure Specification] and this is supported by a WPQR [Welding Procedure Qualification Record],” says Mäki-Reini. But he notes following the directions isn’t as simple as it might sound. “There are in total 164 standards in welding which amount to around 8,200 pages of text.”

Mäki-Reini will break apart a fillet weld and examine the heat affected zone, as well as the root. “Most cracks start at the root. If there’s a flaw in the weld, the product will crack in under a couple thousand running hours.”

Welding is communication
“Many companies only check visually,” Mäki-Reini says. “They don’t know any better. And it sometimes happens that management may not understand the requirements and push the welders to work faster and faster.”

“In manufacturing there’s sometimes a communications gap between the office and the factory floor. ‘Upstairs they didn’t tell us anything about that,’ I’ll hear. The gap is physical, too, because the office is literally upstairs.”

Mäki-Reini has a lot of respect for welders and he knows what they’re capable of. He’s qualified twice as a welder, though after 32 years in the business his eyes are no longer what they used to be. “Welders are good and they’ll solve the problem, but the result isn’t always satisfactory. Welders may not know what’s behind the drawings, and so they need support from the welding coordinator. To produce our products requires a team like an orchestra. If one musician is playing poorly then the result is poor.”

Bad guy or consultant?
In order for a factory orchestra to play to its full potential, Mäki-Reini occasionally finds himself in the role of consultant. “I organize three-day training sessions where we bring together management, the design department, and the workers. We do it in the local language so nothing gets lost in translation.”

Other times he simply offers a new perspective on an old problem. “I bring fresh eyes and I can see things that they cannot see.”

But is he welcomed as an inspector? Is he loved or hated? “Depending on how they view things, suppliers either see me as the bad guy or a free consultant,” he says. “The companies understand my job.”

But if a supplier is required to meet 70 percent of Mäki-Reini’s requirements, the journalist asks, how are welding inspectors judged? The answer seems to be results. Mäki-Reini has been with Wärtsilä for five-and-a-half years and so far there have been no cracks caused by poor welding. “Knock on wood,” he smiles.

iVT EXPO - Industrial Vehicle Technology

February 13-14, a brand new event, iVT Expo for the off-highway vehicle industry will be launched in Cologne, Germany. This event will address the issues, which really matter today in the off-highway industry, like increasing hybridization and electrification, autonomous vehicle technology, improved cabin design and ergonomics, and greater powertrain efficiency as well as reduced emissions.

More than 25 international speakers will present their findings and views on how to increase operator comfort and awareness, while at the same time improving vehicle functionality, productivity and safety. The conference is focusing on the latest and next-generation adaptive user-interface controls, HMI and UX challenges, highly connected vehicle technology and cloud-based operator equipment, but also looking at new materials and general operator ergonomics.

Fortaco will exhibit at iVT Expo and present the latest on our research on safety and comfort in the operator cabins. You are very welcome to visit our stand No. 4025 and listen a presentation by Rafal Sornek, Senior Vice President, Fortaco Technology, at the Industrial Vehicle Cab Design and Technology Conference.