Tuesday, September 25, 2007
 
No Shop is Too Small for Robotic Welding
 
A robotic welding cell has helped increase productivity by 75%

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” so goes the famous quote by a 19th century U.S. economist. In the late 1970s, Nebraska farmer Jerry Groff sought a planter attachment to more accurately and consistently apply fertilizer to his crops. Not finding an off-the-shelf solution, he built his own – a double-disk planter attachment, which placed the fertilizer exactly where he needed it.

 

His crops responded positively, as did his neighboring farmers when they saw the results. The requests from fellow farmers soon grew into demand from equipment dealers throughout the state. Groff’s invention, which became known as the “row flex placer” because it flexes with the planter row unit, evolved and improved over time, and he built a business, Groff Ag, to manufacture and distribute the invention.

 

By the early 1990s, Groff had also created a patented finger row cleaner that tackled the issue of removing crop debris from a planting row. With its ability to efficiently remove crop debris, the cleaner improves the placement of fertilizer and seed, reducing the chance for soil erosion and increasing conservation of soil moisture. In early 2006, farmer Allan Winick purchased Groff Ag and moved the business to Wellington, Colo., where he and his family also own and operate 2,000-acre Winick Farms, growing corn for silage, sugar beets and alfalfa.

 

Keeping the corporate moniker, Groff Ag, Winick and his family continue to grow and expand the business, which means focusing on the manufacturing side of the business full time in the winter and spring. Later in 2006, expansion included the move to welding automation for this small company. Winick faced the challenge of being the only trained welder on staff and often putting in 10- to 12-hour days, manually MIG welding brackets, seams and discs. This left him limited time to focus on his farm business, as well as expand the Groff Ag business.

 

“We only have six employees, and I was spending too much of my time welding,” explained Winick. “And while we were able to fill the orders coming in, the business wasn’t growing at a pace I was satisfied with. So when I took a look at our operations and ways to improve productivity and output without sacrificing quality, the solution was clear – automate the welding.”

 

Before the decision to purchase a robotic welding cell, it took Winick up to two-and-a-half days to weld 70 fertilizer brackets. With this in mind, he decided on Lincoln Electric’s eCell™, a compact robotic cell with a FANUC ARC Mate welding robot, particularly suited for smaller fabrication shops. It’s designed specifically to provide a flexible automation layout delivering consistent and predictable production. Arc welding on Winick’s eCell is powered by a Lincoln PowerWave® 355M welding power source.

 

“Our finished products have to stand up to a variety of conditions, including heavy, rocky soil, so the quality and integrity of its construction and welds are imperative. Our reputation is on the line,” Winick stated. “I needed an uncompromising solution that could stand up to my expectations and my customers. I got that with the eCell.”

 

Lincoln’s dual-fixed table eCell arrived completely assembled and ready to go. And Winick, who runs the business with his wife and daughter, pointed out that his learning curve was minimal. He attended a one-week training course at Lincoln’s Cleveland headquarters and worked closely with Colorado welding equipment distributor General Air, Dave Fullen, a Denver-based Lincoln sales manager and Gary Turrell of Mountain Packagers, who built all of Groff Ag’s animated fixtures for the eCell.

 

“General Air and Lincoln were with me every step of the way and made sure I was properly trained and ready to use the robot on the first day,” Winick said. “It was delivered already assembled – all I had to do was add power, air and welding wire electrode, and I was ready to get started.” 

 

Groff Ag’s finger row cleaners and row flex placers are compatible with planters made by all major manufacturers, including John Deere, Case IH, Kinsey and AGCO. Distributed through a network of 300 dealers throughout the Midwest and South, component parts are manufactured from a high carbon plate steel ranging in thickness from 1/4 to 3/8 inches. The fingered discs, designed to remove debris and break up clods of dirt for a variety of soil conditions, are cut into shapes using a plasma cutter. The pieces are then pulse MIG welded using primarily .045-inch diameter wire with a shielding gas comprised of a 90 percent argon/10 percent carbon dioxide mix.

 

With the Lincoln eCell, Winick has been able to move from MIG spray welding, where post-weld spatter cleanup was an issue, to modified pulsed MIG welding requiring virtually no cleanup. He added that, before the robot, there could be considerable downtime when moving from one weld to another, or from one product to another.

 

“With the robot, my downtime is minimized due to the flexibility its repeatable programming gives me,” Winick said. “Automation offers a shop my size tremendous advantages – more than I realized when I first decided to buy a robot. After the initial setup, testing and programming, all I have to do now is set it and let it do its job.”

 

Groff Ag’s eCell, which is housed in a complete metal sound, flash and safety barrier, is powered by a Lincoln’s Power Wave® 355M, a digitally controlled, 350-amp inverter welding power source capable of complex, high-speed digital communication with the robot controller. The power source, with its Waveform Control Technology software provides enhanced arc starting and superior arc control, which results in reduced arc spatter, less fume and smoother arc performance.

 

The 70 fertilizer brackets that used to take Winick up to two-and-a-half days to weld can now be completed in under five hours with the robot. The 75-percent production increase that automation has provided has allowed Groff Ag to expand its dealer network. Before adding the robot, the company distributed to Colorado, Nebraska, Arizona, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas, North Dakota and South Dakota.

 

“In the past, in February and March, I would start to feel the crunch of filling orders as spring planting season was quickly approaching,” Winick said. “This year in March, just as I was getting ready to call one of my distributors and find out why orders were low, I realized there had been no drop off in orders, and I wasn’t just caught up – I actually had time to spare.”

 

With this “spare” time, Groff Ag is working on expanding its dealer network to include Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, Indiana and Minnesota – with an eye to adding more states down the road. And Winick has begun considering other applications for his company’s robot and is in talks with a couple of local manufacturers about outsourcing some of their welding applications to Groff Ag.

 

“We’ve been able to accommodate our regular demand while growing our capacity for other orders and applications. I would have had to hire at least three full-time welders to accomplish what I got with one eCell,” Winick added. “The robot has also allowed us to steadily build up our inventory, which we weren’t always able to do before. We’re now better equipped to meet the demands and expectations of our distributors and customers and have set the

stage to continue to grow Groff Ag’s business.”