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Laser welding: A natural fit with Industry 4.0

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Jason Woolley, key accounts laser group manager at Abicor Binzel USA, highlights how laser welding is helping make Industry 4.0 a reality

The history of manufacturing production throughout the ages has been consistently redefined by technological revolutions. Starting in the late 1700s with the mechanisation of the textile industry and the introduction of the steam engine, to the invention of the much appreciated assembly line 150 years later, technology in the manufacturing industry has not only brought an increase in production speed, but also a change in how the workforce interacts with and adapts to the new processes. Shortly after WWII, the third revolution ushered in change with the introduction of computers to the workplace.

Today’s workforce is no different, facing yet another technological revolution aptly named Industry 4.0, as it represents the fourth recorded revolution that has occurred in manufacturing. This new industrial revolution, with its cutting-edge digital technologies, will serve as a major disrupter to both production operations and workforce needs.

Where the third revolution introduced the adoption of computers and automation to factories, Industry 4.0 will take this one step further by enhancing those systems with smart and autonomous systems fueled by data and machine learning. While what’s happening with this revolution may not seem as severe as in the past, Industry 4.0 is bringing about so much disruption that it may be the most impactful revolution to date.

Perhaps the biggest disrupter in Industry 4.0 lies with the rapidity of change in how computers are connected and communicate with one another to ultimately make decisions without human involvement. This is a result of cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things (IoT), and the Internet of Systems, allowing the ‘smart factory’ to become a reality. As the factory machines keep getting smarter, they will continue to get access to more data, which will lead to factories becoming more efficient and productive with less scrap. In the end, it's the communication between these machines, digitally connected to one another, creating and sharing information that results in the true power of Industry 4.0.

For a manufacturing plant to truly embrace Industry 4.0, an overall shift toward digital platforms must take place. There are many ways digitisation can influence the factory’s operations. Some of the more common influential technologies and platforms include:

  • Advanced automation and robotics
  • AI and machine learning
  • Cloud computing
  • IoT or connected devices
  • Smart and real-time data sensors
  • 3D printing and digital fabrication mediums
  • Data capture, software analytics, and processing
  • Mobile technologies and platforms
  • Smart vehicles and transportation
  • Real-time data processing and communications

While many industries are exploring the concept of using some of these technologies, manufacturers seem prepared to truly embrace Industry 4.0. Preparing for this change starts with adoption of a strategy that fully addresses the technologies and options available, as well as reviewing the new skills and personnel needed to maintain a smart factory (such as software interface designers, digital innovation managers, data scientists, etc.). There must also be a plan for the purchase and implementation of new tools and software, new data inputs, and training for personnel on all of the above.

Laser welding gets ‘smart’

As manufacturers embrace the new technological era and begin their strategy assessments, one area they have found success with is bringing digitisation to the laser welding process. The success of laser welding depends on the careful consideration of process parameters and its requirements. For example, heating sheet metal with a laser beam requires knowledge about the expected rise in temperature of the workpiece, as the rise in temperature will affect the weld bead geometry, weld velocity, gas flow rate, workpiece hardness, and microstructure.

There are many process parameters at play within laser welding applications and historically, the success has fallen to a knowledgeable factory worker to manually determine and make decisions throughout the process. Thanks in part to the Industry 4.0 revolution, laser welding technologies have gotten smarter, making the weld quality determination process easier (see table 1).

Table 1: How laser welding technologies have gotten ‘smarter’

Using data to leap into the future

With manufacturing of the future relying heavily on data analysis, complicated algorithms, smart, flexible part flow, connected lines and machines, the only thing left to consider is the manufacturing tool itself. Laser welding was a pioneer in digitisation as a fast and flexible technology, with the plant floor now rapidly changing and adapting to make way these new technologies. No longer will factories rely on mechanical tool stations, but instead populate their floors with programmable laser welding stations. These stations will be built on data and have the power to communicate with one another, adapting to the various data sets and parameters they encounter. 

To stay ahead of the competition, manufacturers are embracing these new technologies to ensure that their products roll off the line in record time with less scrap. Interconnectivity among welding power sources, software, and the workers makes this possible. Data accessed during the welding process ensures that the decisions are being made real-time, allowing for quick reaction and better output. It involves dynamic power sources, autonomous machines, highly specialised data collection, and storage systems, along with weld monitoring software that is able to feed the information to various platforms, instantly. All of this is integrated to provide the manufacturing worker with a complete picture of the entire welding process.

Industry 4.0 will, in effect, help bring many manufacturing plants into the future, providing opportunities for production efficiency. The integrated process monitoring using both cameras and sensors will help manufacturers of all sizes leap into the future based on real-time data and technology.

Paving the way forward

Industry 4.0 may still be evolving; however, companies who are already adopting the technologies have realised Industry 4.0's potential, including the opportunity for manufacturers to optimise their operations quickly and efficiently by knowing what needs attention and how to maximise the lessons learned.

When the laser was invented in the sixties, many wondered what possible application we could have for such an invention. Since then, it has proven to be instrumental in applications in various industries around the world. The natural way laser welding aligns with the technologies achieved through Industry 4.0 is just one more example of the flexibility and adaptability of laser welding.

Diagram illustrating remote laser welding (RLW-A), an adaptive technology that uses joint recognition and optical seam tracking to reduce processing time, fill gaps without wire and enable the welding of 3D geometries with a wide range of joint types.

Industry 4.0 is indeed paving the way to the smart factory of the future. As we continue to discover and explore all the advantages this new revolution brings, manufacturers will need to embrace the tools and technologies in order to stay nimble and competitive in this environment.

It is true, we do not know with certainty what additional requirements will emerge with the advancement of the smart factory, but it is clear that laser systems are a great way to embrace whatever lies ahead.

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