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Hard Vs Robotic Welding Automation - What's the Difference

Posted by Matthew Smith on May 18, 2021 9:00:00 AM

Ready to "level up" your knowledge about Welding Automation? When choosing which type of system to go with, clarity to determine the best fit can come from knowing and understanding your goals and ROI. But when you have the choice between Hard or Robotic automation - a lot of questions might come up. Which is better for you? Is one type safer? Is one more expensive?

In this post, our guest writer, Matt, dives deeper into the differences between Hard and Robotic welding automation by answering some of the common questions that come up when exploring this topic. 

Read on below!


  • Quick overview of major differences

  • Which option is safer?

  • Is a robotic solution better than a hard-automation solution?

  • What are the cost implications of hard automation compared to a robotic solution?

  • Is one solution more suited to a particular type of welding?


Welding Automation

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Hard vs. Robotic Welding Automation: What's the Difference?

If you have ever found yourself facing indecision as you shopped for a new car, chances are you have visited one of those streets on the outskirts of town that seemed to be lined with dealerships on both sides of the road as far as the eye can see. Ultimately any one of those dealerships can supply you with a vehicle in your price range that gets you from point A to point B, yet the decision is still anything but easy. Choosing an approach to automate your welding processes is similarly difficult, in that almost any system will provide you with decreased material handling, improved cycle times, optimal arc-on time, and minimized labor hours. With so many seemingly similar options available, how do you choose the system that will bring the most value to your company? Below I would like to address one of the most common difficulties faced when selecting an automation provider: What is the difference between hard automation and robotic automation?


Quick overview of major differences: 


Let us briefly define the two categories before we proceed.
People use some of the names in the list below almost interchangeably, but generally, there are two main groups (or types) of welding automation: 


Robotic Automation refers to the integration of third-party articulated manipulators typically containing 6 or more axes. This equipment is extremely versatile and is most notably re-taskable (meaning a robot can be removed from one cell and interchangeably added to another; provided the proper reprogramming is performed).

Hard Automation systems typically consist of 3-5 axes and are often custom-built for one particular process or type of work. They are generally not interchangeable with other systems or parts outside of a pre-defined size or geometry range and sacrifice some of this versatility for a more targeted approach to a specific problem thus saving resources by omitting features that will not be used.

Note: Robotic integrators are usually required for implementing robotic solutions, whereas an automation design company is needed for custom hard-automation solutions. IRCO Automation is proud to belong to both categories and can therefore provide insight from both perspectives and allow you to make the most appropriate selection for your application.

hard automation vs robotic automation

Now, let's jump into some common questions that come up when deciding what option might be best for your team and application/project. 


Which option is safer?

Improving operator safety is one of the primary influencing factors for manufacturers to implement automated systems. It is no surprise then that regardless of which direction you choose for automating your welding application, a variety of safety features will be available. There is no obvious winner to the question of Which is better? In short, they are both much safer than not implementing automated systems as both approaches inherently remove workers from hazardous work areas. There is no clear-cut winner for which is safer primarily because robotics and hard-automation systems do not approach safety in exactly the same way. They are different, yet both equally effective.

Robotic systems have been used in manufacturing for decades, and as a staple in the high-volume fabrication world, they are understandably highly regulated. Each geographic region has its own regulating bodies responsible for publishing legislation that governs the safe design, installation, integration, and use of robotic systems. These codes (such as CAN/CSA-Z434-14) are well documented, research-supported, and time-tested in ensuring the safe operation of robotic systems. From an integration standpoint, the primary focus associated with these codes is on removing personnel from any situation where they are able to access moving components (and accounting for unexpected movements of the robotic arm). Allowing a large area around your robot’s work envelope and implementing measures to prevent workers from accessing this space while the system is in motion minimizes the potential for dangerous interaction between employees and moving machinery. Sensors, barriers, enable switches, and even advanced technology packages such as collision-detection are also implemented to compound the staff-exclusion effort from your robotic cells.

Hard automation systems inherently come with a slightly different ideology when it comes to worker safety. As mentioned before, robots are versatile, and therefore a broad and all-encompassing approach to hazard elimination must be taken as there is potential for unanticipated movement from any one of the six or more axes. With hard automation systems, the function of the machine is very specific and targeted at performing one task. This simplifies the process of identifying safety concerns as movements are minimized and potentially hazardous situations become much more predictable. Targeted measures can therefore be taken to address specific situations where hazards may occur. Because these systems are often custom-designed, there are endless possibilities and options available for safety equipment that can be integrated to address these situations directly. Because hard automation systems are not as easily repurposed as their robot counterparts, they may require more human interaction with the workpiece and do not necessarily completely preclude operators from accessing moving components. Therefore, they are usually paired with light curtains, pressure-sensitive safety mats, enable switches, zone scanners, and other safety systems to ensure the highest degree of worker safety. These features can be cherry-picked and combined to deliver an environment with minimal hazards despite much higher throughput.

As a final note, the safest way to implement any system is with thorough personnel training and regular preventative maintenance. Plan ahead, review safe operating procedures with staff members frequently and provide maintenance teams with the tools they need to identify and correct hazards promptly to get the most out of the safety features implemented on your machines.

welding automation and safety


Is a robotic solution better than a hard-automation solution?

As mentioned earlier, the two systems are different in their approach to the field of manufacturing and fabrication. Robotics provide a reprogrammable tool that can be moved and installed elsewhere fairly quickly and repeatably. Hard automation strips away unnecessary features to provide a very targeted and efficient response to a given problem. One is not necessarily better than the other as both provide the potential for extremely high accuracy, repeatability, speed, quality, and optimal consumable usage.

In order to answer this question, you will need to look at the goals for your project and ask yourself where a given machine will fit in in the future. Is the weld process you are trying to automate part of a core product that is not likely to change for many years to come, or is it going to be used for a peripheral component that may be subject to significant change and evolution in the future that would render it outside the scope of a hard-automation system? Evaluating the anticipated next stages of a given project will allow you to determine if the versatility associated with robotic systems is merited within your organization or if a more direct approach to a cornerstone process in your line is best suited.

Welding automation best choice


What are the cost implications of hard automation
compared to a robotic solution?


There is plenty of competition in the robot manufacturing industry. With so many options available, it is reasonable to assume that the price of these systems has been optimized for mass production and resale. While you might be getting the best deal possible for a robot, it still might not be the most economical solution for your process if you are not utilizing the full value of the system. Don’t forget, robots are a universal tool and you pay a premium for the added versatility. In some situations, six or seven axes are far more than what is actually required for a given range of motion necessary to weld a particular joint. Take long linear welds for example. Placing a robot on a shuttle gives you seven degrees of freedom. If you are performing a subarc process and we assume that push/pull/attitude angles are consistent, you may not need more than two axes for joint positioning and one axis for travel. That means there are four redundant axes each consisting of braked servo-motors, bearing sets, gearing, and control functions. Not to mention, fewer axes require less preventative maintenance. Don’t forget, you are paying for every part you put on your machine whether you use it or not!

A sidebeam welder would be the obvious choice for such an application. Additional axes can be added as required where different degrees of freedom are needed, such as transverse attitude adjustment for multi-pass processes. Hard automation systems are easily identifiable as the most efficient use of components which may lead you to believe that they are also the most financially friendly. This may not necessarily be true, as the complexity of your required solution may introduce engineering and design hours which can negatively offset the benefits of using fewer components.

The bottom line is that you must evaluate the long-term goals of your project and weigh the benefits of versatility against the initial cost savings of component optimization. In this way, you can make a decision that will provide the maximum return from your investment while radically improving your process safety, quality, repeatability, efficiency, and throughput.

cost of welding automation


Is one solution more suited to a particular type
of welding (or more types)?


The high degree of freedom associated with six-axis robotic systems makes these types of manipulators uniquely suited for some types of exotic welding processes. Laser, plasma, and spot welding are best performed from a robot where the attitude of the tooling can be precisely controlled to fit around complex part geometry. This dexterity also allows robots to reach joints that would be otherwise inaccessible to other types of automated or manual welding. It goes without saying that robots are also more than capable of incorporating traditional welding procedures such as MIG and TIG processes.

One caveat is that the dexterity of articulated manipulators that makes them highly suited for most types of welding can be hindered by some processes such as subarc. The additional equipment required for high-deposition processes such as subarc restricts a robot’s ability to perform to its designed capabilities. Flux hoppers must be suitably located to take advantage of gravity-assisted flux flow through short runs or additional measures must be taken to provide pressurized flow. Flux recovery equipment also intrudes on the robot’s workspace as bulky vacuum equipment may be required which further limits the EOAT (End of Arm Tooling) dexterity. While it is completely possible to perform subarc welding from a robot, it is recommended that these processes be implemented on hard automation systems. In this way, inefficient use of a system’s total range of motion is eliminated, and unnecessary costs can be avoided.

types of welding with welding automation


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Topics: Welding Automation, Welding, IRCO Automation, Robotic Welding, Automated Welding System Features