Delivering a superior weld
Elon Musk recently claimed that his innovative electric car firm Tesla is now “a real car company” after it met a huge production target: to produce 5000 of its affordable ‘Model 3’ sedan cars per week. Tesla employees and production lines worked around the clock to meet the weekly target set by Musk, and a hastily constructed 100 ft long additional production line in a tent was erected in order to speed up the process. On 1 July, Musk emailed his employees to congratulate them on this effort and to encourage them to meet the next target of 6000 per week for the month of August.
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Musk may consider his company a real car company now, able to stand up against the established auto makers, but in many ways Tesla is trying to break from standard mass-market automotive practice. The company’s original approach was to totally embrace robotic machinery and to automate almost everything in the production line (utilising over 1000 robots and assembly machines) but, in practice, it often proved that robotic machines were less capable of performing certain tasks compared to human workers. So, Tesla tweaked its model, employees came back to the manufacturing floor where needed and work stations were modified so that robots and humans could be alongside each other, working to their own strengths. Musk has admitted: “One of the biggest mistakes we made was trying to automate things that are super easy for a person to do, but super hard for a robot to do … and when you see it, it looks super dumb … why did we do that?”
Tesla has been looking for ways to shorten the time that robots take to weld parts. The car chassis are welded together by cold metal transfer welding robots designed to work on aluminium frames. This technology has revolutionised the welding of dissimilar metals and thicker materials by producing improved weld bead aesthetics with controlled metal deposition and low heat input. After some research, Tesla has concluded that it can produce Model 3 underbodies with 300 fewer spot welds (there are some 5000 in the entire car).
A new report on the robotic welding market was published in July by MarketsandMarkets, forecasting that the sector will grow from US$3.89 billion in 2018 to US$5.96 billion by 2023. The report claims that growth will come from global adoption of Industry 4.0, which represents the automation of manufacturing processes through the Internet of Things and the concept of big data. Industry 4.0 solutions will see manufacturing systems become more connected and ever smarter.
Automated welding’s place in the pipeline industry is an important one: mechanised welding equipment can help improve productivity – and typically displays fewer weld defects – and is therefore often mandated in project specs. Automated solutions can help human welders reach the required acceptance criteria of increasingly complex projects and can improve reject and repair rates.
In this issue of World Pipelines, SiRFULL Technology writes about developing an industrial platform for manufacturing execution systems in the oil and gas pipeline industry (p.140). The system helps clients such as GRTgaz keep track of documentation and equipment for processes such as welding and monitoring asset health. Also in the issue, JES Pipelines discusses the growth of automated ultrasonic testing for pipeline girth welds (p.137). JES has been working on its own portable, broad application, DNV qualified AUT system for pipeline projects around the world. Finally, the annual Contractors’ Directory (p.33) includes updates from contractors working all over the world, including several companies discussing welding. CRC-Evans describes a project in the UAE for Gasco, where CRC-Evans’ mechanised welding machines achieved high production with low repair rates; and Vallourec outlines its welding project management services, reporting a recent GMAW STT welding project in Myanmar, where over 200 joints per day were performed, with a repair rate of less than 1%.
Tesla hopes to use a combination of artificial intelligence and automation to revolutionise the automotive industry. The potential benefits to the pipeline industry of collaborative robot welding systems are many and varied: a report by Novarc Technologies in 2016 states that “to work well in a highly variable environment, automation needs the cognition, reaction and adaptation of a human operator. Pipe fabricators are now taking the first steps in this direction by replacing the welder’s arm with a collaborative robot.”1