Robot welders are not an unusual sight in modern manufacturing plants. But this kind of technology was unknown in structural steelwork fabrication yards until a couple of months ago, when Fairfield Mabey installed a new robotic welder.
The firm specialises in producing bridge steelwork, and the robots are being used to weld stiffeners on girders.
'The robots mean we can now offer a far more consistent product, ' says Fairfield Mabey managing director Peter Lloyd.
'We experimented with robot welders back in 1989, but those original units had a very limited capability. Early robot technology could not cope with the complex geometry of real bridges. What makes this latest installation a real first for the steel construction industry is the fact that these robots are directly linked to our CAD 3D modelling system, ' Lloyd explains.
Within the CAD programme, a virtual 3D model of a steel bridge structure is created, including every bolt and plate. This is then peeled apart into components and it is this information that is sent directly to the shop floor machines.
Not only do the robots apply a consistent weld to the girder's stiffeners, they also perform a dimensional quality control check.
'If the stiffener is the wrong size or in the wrong position, the robot will automatically identify the error and tell the supervisor, ' Lloyd says. The company's robot welding machine actually consists of two welding robots mounted on a travelling gantry. The system can do the work of six manual welders and can operate 24 hours per day, seven days a week.