AGT Robotics Enhances Automated Welding, Cuts Component Costs in Half with PC Control
McCombs Steel offsets labor shortages with ‘automation squared’: precision robotic welding and automated programming with AGT’s BeamMaster
Among all other industries, construction uses the majority of steel produced globally. Beams for buildings require reliable, high-precision welding to ensure structural integrity and public safety. McCombs Steel Company, Inc. in Statesville, North Carolina, is certified by the American Institute of Steel Construction (AISC) and fabricates and erects structural steel and miscellaneous metals. As such, the company faces the challenges of maintaining high quality, implementing lean manufacturing and meeting project timelines every day. One leading-edge technology, the BeamMaster robotic welding system from AGT Robotics, has helped McCombs meet these challenges. “The lack of experienced personnel in the steel industry previously led to overworking our existing staff, which is unacceptable,” says Mac McCombs, President of McCombs Steel. “The BeamMaster, which is nicknamed Bruce, has increased safety, quality and throughput in production.”
Based in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, AGT Robotics was founded in 1992 as a general automation integrator, but now specializes almost exclusively in robotic welding. The BeamMaster system, first released in 2015, uses AGT’s Cortex software with built-in artificial intelligence (AI) and a proprietary simulation engine to optimize weld schedules. Relying on PC-based control technology, the system is modular and scalable to allow many mechanical configurations for end users. However, the standard version comprises two or more servo-driven beam rotators, a FANUC Arc Mate 120iC articulated robot that moves parallel to the beam along a track and an operator station with a multi-touch control panel. The circular rotators can handle beams from 4 to 48 inches wide and up to 90 feet long with a maximum weight of 10,000 pounds. The rotators can turn 360 degrees to expose all surfaces on W beams and HSS closed rectangular columns to increase welding efficiency.
While similar robotic welding systems have become widely adopted for automotive applications, very few are designed for structural steel. AGT Robotics recognized this untapped market as a significant opportunity, but one with unique challenges, according to Louis Dicaire, General Manager and Co-owner at AGT.
“The automotive business produces a few parts maybe 100,000 times, so just a few robots repeat the same tasks for years,” he says. “In structural steel, even though parts are similar, the beams have different widths, lengths, sections and accessories in an infinite number of combinations. That has slowed implementation of robotics in this industry.” Through its inherent flexibility, the BeamMaster – distributed as the Ocean Challenger by Ocean Machinery in the U.S. – offers an optimal solution.
Flexibility for automated welding and programming
Design of the BeamMaster presented unique challenges. Robotics can offset a shortage of qualified welders, but constant programming of custom parts often requires additional controls engineers, which are also difficult to find in today’s market. To avoid this, AGT wanted to produce a system that would automate not only the welding, but also the programming for McCombs and other fabrication shops. “McCombs uses our machine 24/7, automatically welding most of their beams,” explains François Béland, Automation & Robotics Specialist at AGT. “The structural steel industry relies on the Tekla CAD software, so we built a plug-in that exports 3D beam models from Tekla into Cortex.”
Without requiring a single robotic technician to fine-tune or add to the program, Cortex automatically generates movements. The system offers a complete weld schedule for structural steel. “All joint types are covered, whether multi-pass or single-pass, a quarter-inch weld or a half-inch weld. The sequencing and flipping of the beam are automatic as well,” Dicaire says. “So not only is the operation automated, but the automation programming is also automated: You could say that it’s automation squared.”
Transferring these software capabilities to a real-time machine control environment, however, required a similarly flexible automation platform. Hardware and software modularity was important to ensure that BeamMaster systems could be scaled up or down easily as required in the future; end users might want to add rotators or even a second robot to increase throughput. In addition, the platform needed to provide robust remote support capabilities for troubleshooting and updates, since the system is designed for end users around the world with limited engineering resources.
EtherCAT opens up communications for automated welding
While searching for an EtherCAT industrial Ethernet system master controller in 2015, the AGT engineering team soon identified PC-based control technologies from Beckhoff Automation as a comprehensive solution. They began working closely with Ted Sarazin, Regional Sales Manager for Beckhoff, to standardize the BeamMaster design. “The openness of the Beckhoff platform, from the company that invented EtherCAT and TwinCAT automation software, was key for AGT,” Sarazin says.
While BeamMaster systems can be quite large, AGT sought compact controller and I/O options to ensure small control cabinet footprints while remaining cost-competitive. “The strength of EtherCAT lies in the fact that it is deterministic and does not require IP addresses for each device. As such, it speeds up commissioning through automatic configuration of devices on the network and offers reliable, real-time communication,” Béland explains.
Regarding hardware, the BeamMaster uses space-saving 8- and 16-channel EtherCAT I/O terminals, EtherNet/IP Bus Couplers to interface with FANUC robot controllers and TwinSAFE terminals for integrated functional safety. The robotic welding system includes several safety zones with light curtains, ensuring that operators approach the beam to perform quality inspection only when the robot is not active in that specific zone. The light curtains connect to TwinSAFE terminals using the TÜV-certified Safety over EtherCAT (FSoE) protocol to communicate safety data via a “black channel” method over the same EtherCAT network used for standard communication.
A universal platform for robotic welding
Beyond EtherCAT, AGT leverages many solutions from the robust Beckhoff platform. TwinCAT 3 provides deterministic control from a software-based master for BeamMaster. Programming of all functions, from PLC and motion control to safety and HMI, is directly integrated into Microsoft Visual Studio®. Engineers can select the language they know best or that makes the most sense for the project, whether it is IEC 61131-3 with object-oriented extensions, function blocks or computer science standards. “We can develop our own applications – using .NET, for instance – that will communicate directly with the PLC,” Béland says. “Most importantly, all code is easy to reuse and customize from one system to another.”
All PLC code and auxiliary software runs on a CX5130 Embedded PC from Beckhoff, connected to a CP2918 multi-touch Control Panel as the operator interface. The DIN rail-mounted machine controller boasts a dual-core Intel Atom® processor with 4 GB DDR3 RAM. “The CX5130 delivers enough processing power for all motion and sequence planning tasks, even if the system uses two robots and additional beam rotators,” Dicaire says. “Another strength is that it is a PC, so we can run other applications alongside the PLC, such as the HTML5-based HMI, SQL databases and more.” The CP2918 combines an aesthetically pleasing 18.5-inch widescreen panel with integrated push buttons and an industrial-hardened form factor suited for fab shop environments.
Beyond the robot equipped with a Lincoln Electric AutoDrive® welding source, all other motion control takes place with AX5000 series Servo Drives and AM8000 Servomotors from Beckhoff. These provide closed-loop control for accurate positioning of the beam. “From motion control to PLC programming and integration of third-party software and robots, the BeamMaster shows how scalable and incredibly open the Beckhoff platform is,” Sarazin says.
Automatic results with PC-based automation
The development of Cortex software and careful system design of BeamMaster using off-the-shelf components from Beckhoff resulted in significant advantages for AGT. Programming of the first system took two months, but with easy code reuse, that is sped up to just half a day now. “Standardizing on Beckhoff also cut our component costs in half compared to previous solutions while providing more capabilities and options for customization,” Dicaire says. “While the automation technologies from Beckhoff are high performing and very reliable, the company’s support is also very helpful and responsive. All in all, the move to EtherCAT and PC-based automation has proven to be an excellent decision for us and our customers, such as McCombs.”
Before implementing the BeamMaster, McCombs Steel met with AGT and several customers, and carefully considered where it would fit in the shop’s three production bays. The system has become invaluable and contributed to growth since it went live in September 2019, according to Mac McCombs. “The BeamMaster system completes repetitive and non-repetitive work in the most efficient manner,” he says. “We have experienced a safer work environment, higher quality construction materials and increased throughput through round-the-clock welding. BeamMaster has exceeded expectations.”
The inherent connectivity of PC-based control allows AGT to provide support and updates quickly. In addition, AGT includes an Android tablet with each BeamMaster so that customers can send images or video to the engineers in Canada assist in troubleshooting at facilities across the globe. McCombs has appreciated these capabilities and the partnership both companies have developed. “AGT Robotics offers the best sales and engineering support in the fabricating industry,” McCombs adds. “As a result, we commissioned a second system in spring 2020.”
Want to learn more about applying automation technology in your robotic welding or other fabrication machines? Contact your local Beckhoff sales engineer today.
James Figy is the Senior Content Specialist for Beckhoff Automation LLC.
A version of this article previously appeared in Fabricating & Metalworing.