Is this for-hire welding robot an omen for skilled labor?

Robotics developers are scrambling to automate skilled jobs amid labor shortages.

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There's a new, easy-to-program welding robot launching in November, and for many in the industry it comes not a moment too soon. That's because there are massive labor shortages in the American welding sector. 

The robot, called the BotX Welder, is a direct response to industry hiring problems, along with the persistent challenge faced by fabrication companies in producing precision parts in small batches. It's also a feat of engineering and a good example of how automation companies are now standing on the shoulders of a generation of developers who created the underlying technology that's now being deployed to address specific industrial challenges.

"Many people didn't believe that collaborative robots could perform such heavy-duty tasks as welding," says Rob Goldiez, co-founder of Hirebotics. "We realized the need of a solution for small and medium sized metal fabricators trying to find welders."

In developing their robot, Hirebotics turned to Universal Robots, maker of multi-access collaborative robot arms. Those robots are more typically associated with precision light duty tasks, such as components manufacturing. But Hirebotics is showing that a cobot like the UR10e can handle some brawny tasks while offering significant advantages over heavier duty industrial automation technology.

Namely, collaborative robots are easy to teach, as they're designed to be task agnostic and quickly deployable in a variety of industries and settings. Universal Robots also builds their products on an open architecture, which allows for custom development.

"We chose Universal Robots' e-Series line for several reasons," says Goldiez. "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," he says. "UR's open platform also enabled us to develop a cloud-based software solution that allows us to ensure a customer is always running with the latest features at no charge," explains the Hirebotics co-founder. 

Hirebotics is pairing that ease of programming with another value proposition: Leveraging an increasingly popular as-a-service model, which we're seeing in various automation sectors, including autonomous mobile robots, customers won't have to assume ownership costs or the risk of obsolescence.

"You can hire and fire BotX as your business needs dictate," explains Goldiez.

The company offered an example of how a robot like this might be deployed in the form of a Wisconsin fabricator, PMI LLC. 

"A large order would mean, we need to hire 10-15 welders to fulfill it – and they're just not out there," says VP of Operations at PMI, Erik Larson. "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."

As I've written, I'm a big fan of automation that provides deployable solutions to pressing, albeit often unsexy problems. This is a great example of how robots are quickly but quietly becoming an integral part of the enterprise.

The BotX is now available to early access customers and will officially launch at FABTECH in Chicago, November 11-14.